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Analysts debate EU's role in hastening Cuba's future 'transition to democracy'
CubaNews / November 2005

By Larry Luxner

The United States and the European Union are worlds apart when it comes to dealing with Castro’s Cuba — with some experts questioning whether the U.S. and the EU— and even countries within Europe — really have the same strategic objectives in mind.

Top officials from both sides of the Atlantic debated this touchy subject at a Nov. 8 conference in Brussels. The meeting was co-sponsored by Washington-based Freedom House and its European counterpart, the Madrid-based Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE).

Entitled “Common Goals, Different Strate-gies: Options for a Transatlantic Agenda on Cuba,” the Brussels event attracted 75 policymakers, analysts, academics and others.

CubaNews attended at the invitation of Freedom House, whose expenses for the one-day meet were underwritten by the taxpayer-funded U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We came up with the idea for this conference because we think the policies of the U.S. and the EU have both failed,” said Susanne Gratius, senior researcher at FRIDE’s Democratization and Rule of Law program.

“These policies do not promote democracy. The EU’s engagement policy has strengthened Castro in political terms, while the U.S. appears to be Castro’s perfect enemy,” she said. “Maybe if we had a common policy, we’d have some success in promoting democracy in Cuba.”

For years, the EU pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Castro regime, promoting trade and investment in Cuba — and rejecting Washington’s embargo — while quietly encouraging dissent.

But in March 2003, the regime rounded up 75 dissidents, independent librarians and journalists — sentencing some of them to 28 years in prison — and executed three men who tried to hijack a Havana ferry to Florida. The European Commission responded by freezing Fidel Castro’s request to join the Cotonou Agreement, a trade and development program for ex-European colonies.

The EU, which at that time comprised 15 nations, unanimously voted to limit bilateral high-level government visits and reduce the profile of member states’ participation in cultural events. It also began inviting Cuban dissidents to celebrations of all EU national days, sparking Havana’s so-called “cocktail wars.”

The Castro crackdown triggered a harsh response from the Bush administration, which last year clamped severe restrictions on remittances and family travel to Cuba in an effort to further deprive Castro of dollars.

Then, on Jan. 31, 2005, EU foreign ministers voted to suspend diplomatic sanctions against Cuba. However, Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda managed to insert a proposal under which EU nations must invite Cuban dissidents to their embassies as in the past. The EU hasn’t returned to the sanctions that were originally suspended until June.

“The situation is really quite terrible at the moment,” said Joel Brito, executive director of the Miami-based International Group for Corporate Social Responsibility in Cuba. “After 46 years of dictatorship and [Castro’s] speech of July 26, it seems the orthodoxy of the regime remains unchallenged. Anybody who criticizes the regime — trade unions, journalists, human-rights activists — endangers his life. The government has already said it won’t give into the democrats, and that any deviation from the revolution will be prosecuted.”

Brito told the Brussels gathering that “our group has used every possible means to de-nounce the violation of human rights in Cuba, and we’ve contacted all sorts of trade unions in Europe, but we’ve had only limited results.”

José Ignacio Salafranca is a Spanish member of the European Parliament, and vice-president of the European Popular Party-European Democrats (PPE-DE) responsible for relations with Latin America. Salafranca said he’s proud that the EU awarded its 2003 Sakharov Prize to Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project — but that he strongly disagrees with the current pronouncements coming out of Brussels.

“I’ve always done my best as an MP to preserve dialogue and bring the EU’s message to the Cuban government. I’ve been to Cuba and had a chance to meet with Fidel Castro. I’ve told him on two occasions that he has to accept change. But it takes two to tango, and if one of the two sides doesn’t want dialogue, it's very difficult to have a dialogue.”

Salafranca added: “Not a single prisoner has been released. We think it’s disgraceful that the EU demands the release of political prisoners, then this doesn’t happen and the EU still wants to lift sanctions against Cuba. As Sakharov used to say, the voices that count are the voices that remain unheard.”

Javier Sandomingo, director-general of foreign policy at the Spanish Foreign Ministry in Madrid, agrees that none of the dissidents has been released, but he concludes that the EU’s recent measures against Cuba didn’t produce results. That’s why, he said, Spain’s current Zapatero government supports the EU’s common position.

“These measures are really counterproductive, because there’s been a break in the dialogue between Cuba and the EU, meaning we’ve had no tools to foster a common dialogue,” Sandomingo said, insisting that “we haven’t abandoned anybody.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that in March 2004, the EU jumped in size from 15 to 25 members. Eight of the 10 newcomers are ex-communist dictatorships that had no say in formulating current EU policy towards Cuba.

“They inherited this position, which raises a problem for the EU in the future,” says Laurence Whitehead, a senior fellow at Oxford University’s Nuffield College. He noted that several new EU members — led by the Czech Republic — are outspoken in their op-position to Fidel and would never have agreed to lift the EU sanctions.

“Secondly, for good or ill, an attempt was made to radically promote democracy in Iraq by the most forceful means,” said Whitehead. “Had that been successful, it would have had a hugely demonstrable impact on Cuba. The fact that it did not — and that the outcome in Iraq is still extremely divisive — has had a powerful [negative] effect on the prospects for EU and U.S. cooperation.”

But Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, isn’t so sure Washington and Brussels want the same thing for Cuba.

“When you peel back the onion a little, you see that the United States and the EU have very different goals when it comes to Cuba,” Erikson told delegates. “This isn’t like Mars and Venus. It’s more like Mercury and Jupiter.”

Specifically, he said, “the EU seeks a gradual transition that respects European investments, while the United States seeks a rapid transition and places a high interest in compensation for confiscated property. For the United States, ending the Castro regime is an important goal unto itself.

“The U.S. also foresees implicitly a major role for Cuban-Americans in the transition, while in Spain and Europe generally, people feel the exile community can play a supporting role, but not a leading role.”

In addition, said Erikson, “the U.S. still sees Cuba as a security threat; it’s one of six countries on the State Department’s list of state-sponsored terrorism. These views aren’t widely shared in Europe.”

Adds FRIDE’s Gratius: “We don’t want to have a breakdown with the current regime. It isn’t possible for the transition to be peaceful if the regime starts the process by itself. So our main partner is the Castro regime.

“First of all, the EU should opt for an engagement policy, but without conditions — or else fight for democracy with sanctions,” she said. “Secondly, the EU should be more forward-looking and consider what will happen once Castro leaves. Neither the U.S. nor the EU would know what to do if Castro dies tomorrow. We have a very reactive policy which doesn’t look towards the future.”

Luís Yánez-Barnuevo García, for one, doesnot seem hopeful that a common U.S.-European position on Cuba will be worked out.

“It would be desirable to have a transatlantic agenda on Cuba, but this is extraordinarily difficult at this time,” said the Spaniard, who’s been a member of the European Parliament since June 2004. “Time tells us that the embargo has been an immense failure, and also a weapon for Castro to perpetuate himself in power. It has been damaging for the people of Cuba, and beneficial for the ones in power, which may sound like a paradox. As we all know, the Cuban government has only become more rigid.”

Yánez-Barnuevo noted that the position of Latin America has rarely been considered in the whole debate about how to bring about democratic transition in Cuba. He pointed to last month’s XV Ibero-American Summit in Salamanca, Spain, during which a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo was approved by all 17 nations in attendance.

“Most of those countries — nearly all of them — are in complete opposition to U.S. policy on Cuba. That has to be factored in when we consider what’s going to happen during Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy,” he said. “In Europe, we rule out any kind of violent means to finish the Castro regime, but there is no such thing as a common European policy. If we really want to be efficient, those policies must be endorsed by each and every member state of the EU.”

Yánez-Barnuevo added that in his native Spain, the Cuba issue frequently becomes an excuse for conservatives and liberals to bash each other.

“In many cases, people who believe in dialogue with Cuba have been ridiculed or accused of being accomplices of the Castro regime, or even friends of the torturers. And when somebody defends the policy of confrontation, the others accuse him of imperialism. We have to get away from all that.”

Another perspective is offered by Shelley McConnell of the Carter Center in Atlanta.

As senior associate director of the Americas Program, McConnell helped arrange former President Jimmy Carter’s historic 2002 trip to Cuba; during the visit, she was liaison to the religious leaders, human-rights activists, independent journalists, former political prisoners and Varela Project representatives with whom Carter met.

“At the Carter Center, we feel that engagement is the best policy, but not for tourism, investment and agriculture sales — rather a broader effort toward systematic diffusion of ideas. That was the principle guiding Carter’s trip to Cuba. He insisted on the opportunity to directly engage the Cuban people.”

McConnell suggested that “some dissident organizations [in Cuba] have been accused of being U.S. puppets because they take U.S. money. I wonder if some of those same accusations have been leveled at groups [that accept funds] from the EU. Maybe the mixing of money would create a safer atmosphere for opposition groups.”

Even in faraway Brussels, a discussion of South Florida politics couldn’t be avoided.

As McConnell pointed out, Cuban-Americans who arrived after 1980 are for the most part economic rather than political refugees, and are therefore much more likely to favor family visits and be able to send remittances back home than those who fled Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet only 37% of those more recent arrivals are registered to vote.

“We need to strengthen our own democracy,” said McConnell. “We need to register to vote those Cuban-Americans in Florida who have not done so. The strategy should be to get more liberal Democrats and Republicans elected to Congress.”

Richard Youngs, co-director of FRIDE, says one hopeful sign that the U.S. and the EU can work together is their relative success in formulating joint policies with regard to other trouble spots like Belarus, Ukraine and Syria.

“In Ukraine,” he said, “the EU played a strong role in governance issues, while the U.S. was good on civic education. But the United States needs to learn to lead from behind. Where the U.S. has recognized this, it has encouraged European civil society organizations to play a more practical role.”

Stephen Johnson, policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says the EU can take a more aggressive role in Cuba — like occasionally spying on their Cuban hosts.

“Europeans can improve and deepen intelligence collection on the island without being sworn enemies of the Castro regime. Your diplomats have much greater freedom to travel and interact with Cuban officials than we do. That knowledge will be critical. And your tourists and diplomats can support dissidents and human-rights activists with radios and other supplies to keep them connected.”

Erikson of Inter-American Dialogue has his own suggestions, starting with more carefully scrutinizing the dissidents themselves in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises. He added that the United States should “expand its agenda to help address humanitarian issues. There’s a great deal of poverty on the island, and the U.S. could help alleviate some of the desperation. Also, a sustainable democratic government in Cuba will require some form of national reconciliation.”

In the end, however, both U.S. and EU officials ought to be wary of getting too involved in the post-Castro transition, warns Christian Freres, an adviser to the Spanish Internation-al Cooperation Agency.

“It is from the inside that changes will come,” said Freres. “More and more Cubans want change, but they also don’t want any kind of interference from outside, be it from the U.S. or the European Union. We need to be very cautious when we suggest different paths to follow. It’s up to them to decide.”

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