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Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff: EU's top envoy in Havana
CubaNews / January 2004

By Larry Luxner

Last March, at the height of Cuba’s honeymoon with the European Union, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque personally cut the ribbon at a ceremony to inaugurate the EU’s new mission along Quinta Avenida in Havana’s elegant Miramar district.

That same week, Fidel Castro hosted a three-hour lunch for his European friends, including EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielsen and the man named to head the new Havana mission, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff.

The honeymoon didn’t last very long.

“One week later, on Mar. 21, the first dissident arrests took place. It seemed like a slap in the face to the EU,” von Burgsdorff recalled in a lengthy interview with CubaNews.

“Cuba certainly underestimated the damage done to EU-Cuba relations,” he said. “We have a clear policy on human rights that civil and political liberties must be respected all over the world, and the arrest of 75 dissidents was simply not in line with our principles.”

Since then, relations between Havana and Brussels have sunk to their lowest levels ever. And it’s happening at a time when the EU is becoming an ever-more important player on the world stage.

At present, 380 million people live in the 15 nations that comprise the EU, which has a total GDP of $8.6 trillion. On May 1, with the entry of 10 new members — Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — the new 25-member EU will boast a population of 470 million and a GDP of over $9.3 trillion.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance Eur-ope plays in the Cuban economy. EU member nations are the source of 40% of the island’s external trade, 50% of its tourism industry and over 55% of direct foreign investment in Cuba. Bilateral trade totals $1.9 billion a year, with most of that consisting of EU exports to Cuba.

In fact, of all the current EU members, only Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg don’t have their own embassies in Havana.

“We had a very good relationship until the crackdown,” said von Burgsdorff, noting that Cuba was on the verge of being admitted to the Cotonou Agreement, which offers trade benefits and economic assistance to 78 developing nations.

“Cuba withdrew its application to Cotonou in April 2000, as a protest after the Geneva vote on human rights,” he said. “They reconsidered their position in 2001 and 2002, and President Castro made the announcement on Dec. 8, 2002, that Cuba would seek to join again. This was formalized on Jan. 8, 2003.”

Less than a month later, von Burgsdorff arrived in Havana as chargé d’affaires of the mission, which was previously occupied by ECHO (the EU Humanitarian Aid Office). It is part of the external relations network of the European Commission, and as such is fully funded out of the administrative budget. The European Commission has about 120 such missions worldwide.

“Originally, the setup was that the Havana delegation would work under the authority of the Santo Domingo delegation, where the head of the delegation there would also be accredited as a non-resident ambassador to Cuba,” he explained. “This hasn’t happened so far because of the diplomatic fallout.”

Von Burgsdorff, 45, is a German career diplomat previously posted in Brussels, where he was the EU’s desk officer for Cuba and the Caribbean. Before that, von Burgsdorff was head of cooperation section for the EU delegation in Bratislava, Slovakia.

He’s also worked in Togo and Mozambique, has five children and speaks six languages: German, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Slovak.

Unlike most European diplomats in Havana, who agree to talk to CubaNews and other publications only on background, von Burgsdorff doesn’t mind being quoted by name.

In fact, he’s considered quite outspoken in a country where foreign diplomats as well as journalists assume their conversations are routinely bugged.

“We are not invited to any government receptions,” he complained. “We can only communicate in writing with Cuban officials through formal notes. Very often, we do not even receive a reply.”

Von Burgsdorff added: “It’s highly unsatisfactory not to be able to communicate directly with government officials, either on political or cooperation matters. We are seriously limited in our room to maneuver and our ability to conduct a policy of constructive engagement, which includes providing support and guidance to our partners. We will now have to concentrate more on those partners which still want to deal with us — business, the NGO sector and civil society.”

The sudden rift between Cuba and the EU took many people by surprise.

On Jun. 5, in response to the imprisonment of the 75 dissidents as well as the execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry in April, the EU announced it would curtail official visits to the island, limit cultural exchange initiatives and begin inviting opposition figures to all National Day celebrations of EU members’ embassies in Havana.

In retaliation, on Jul. 26, 2003 — in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Moncada attack in Santiago de Cuba— Castro declared that Cuba, “out of a basic sense of dignity, relinquishes any aid or remnant of humanitarian aid that may be offered by the European Commission and governments of the European Union.”

He added that “our country will only accept this kind of aid, no matter how modest, from regional or local autonomous governments, NGOs and solidarity movements which do not impose political conditions on Cuba.”

The hostility has even extended to the traditional exchanging of Christmas gifts.

Last month, reported the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Foreign Ministry told diplomats from EU member nations not to bother sending presents to Cuban officials.

“A present is a symbol of respect and friendship. Things between some European ambassadors, their governments and us here in Havana are not conducive to gift-giving,” the paper quoted Pérez Roque as saying. “It’s a moment of tension. We are offended by some of the European ambassadors here.”

Yet von Burgsdorff says the Cuban government has chosen to deliberately misinterpret the EU’s gestures.

“The Cuban authorities saw our sanctions of Jun. 5 as interfering in internal Cuban matters. For the EU, however, this was a justified reaction of expressing discontent with the decision of the Cuban authorities to arrest 75 dissidents who, in our view, have done nothing but voice in public a different political opinion,” he told CubaNews.

“The measure to show a less visible profile in cultural events was unfortunately misunderstood by the media and the authorities to mean that the EU suggested reducing financing for cultural events. The EU has never taken such a decision. It was simply meant to be a symbolic expression of protest that 75 people were still in prison.”

Von Burgsdorff said that from 1998 to 2001, the EU spent an average of 17 million euros a year in financial commitments to Cuba, and that between 1993 and 2002, the cumulative total reached 145 million euros.

“Up until 2001, around two-thirds of our assistance was humanitarian aid, which we phased out because we felt that Cuba was not in a state of emergency any longer,” he said.

“It is too early to assess the effect of this decision. Our focus continues to be to help the Cuban people. We could have easily closed the door and said thank you, that’s enough. Quite a number of people in Europe thought we should have done just that. But a clear majority said no, let’s stay engaged and help the Cuban people prepare for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. We still believe we were justified in our decision.”

Following Castro’s tirade, the Cuban government cancelled six cooperative projects managed by the European Commission and 16 supported by EU states, principally Germany, France, Italy and Spain. These include:

*a project to help Cuba’s Finance Ministry develop a national accounting system to better plan public revenues and expenditures. The project, valued at 3.4 million euros, also aimed to bring accountancy standards up to internationally accepted standards.

* DEADE, a 1.9 million-euro project benefitting Cuban middle managers through an executive MBA program offered by five prestigious European universities including the London School of Economics.

* a 2.8 million-euro project to promote joint ventures and foreign direct investments.

Asked what impact the political impasse between Cuba and the EU might have on investment, von Burgsdorff said it’s hard to say.

“Investors take decisions based on the merits of a given investment project, including the available support structure. Since the ‘frozen’ European embassies don’t have access to authorities to facilitate the resolution of problems of investors who come here, they are limited in what they can do for investors.”

Von Burgsdorff takes exception to Castro’s charge that the EU is simply towing the American line when it comes to Cuba policy.

“Both the United States and the European Union agree that there are serious shortcomings in Cuba’s civil and political rights, but we have a policy of constructive engagement,” he said. “We want to use trade, cooperation, investment, tourism and people-to-people contact in all spheres to spread our countries’ views, as we did in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and any other part of the world.

“We have consistently voted for the Cuba-sponsored resolution at the UN General As-sembly [regarding the embargo] and against Cuba in the Human Rights Commission. It is not our policy to apply sanctions to a country as a way of promoting political objectives.”

Von Burgsdorff contrasted Cuba’s hostile attitude with that of China, which despite its communist government engages in a “structured human-rights dialogue” with the EU.

“We discuss issues like the death penalty, political prisoners, freedom of expression and religion in an open and frank manner,” he said. “This in no way affects our investment or trade relations, nor does it prevent us from deepening our political dialogue.”

What irks the Cuban government more than anything else is the EU’s decision to invite dissidents like Oswaldo Payá and Vladi-miro Roca to National Day receptions.

Von Burgsdorff defends the practice.

“Everybody who stands up for his own beliefs deserves full credit and full recognition because it’s a very courageous thing to do,” he said. “We believe the dissidents are part of civil society, and I make it a policy that the dissidents can always come to us. We see them regularly. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we act in full transparency.”

Von Burgsdorff stresses that even in the hostile atmosphere of EU-Cuba relations, Brussels “did not cut relations, we did not stop cooperation programs and we did not retaliate against the diplomatic sanctions imposed on European embassies in Havana.

“On the contrary, the European Commission is even making efforts to ensure a more visible presence in Cuba. I used to be the only employee until last summer. Now we’re getting more staff, and by next summer, we should have 10 people working in the delelgation, including civil servants and international experts. This is proof of our commitment toward a constructive engagement policy.”

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