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Non-U.S. diplomats sound off on Cuba: Views from Ottawa, Brussels & London
CubaNews / July-August 2009

Three of Washington’s closest allies in the world — Canada, Great Britain and the European Union — couldn’t disagree more with U.S. policy when it comes to one thorny, perennial issue: Cuba.

The dramatic divergence of views was obvious at a July 23 seminar organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

“Cuba: An International Perspective” featured talks by two Washington-based political officers — Bruce Levy of the Canadian Embassy and Luc Véron of the European Commission — and Dianna Melrose, British ambassador to Cuba.

Levy, head of his embassy’s political section, noted that Canada and Mexico were the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere that didn’t sever diplomatic relations with Cuba following the 1959 revolution.

“When the U.S. embargo was imposed, Can-ada decided to maintain engagement. This was an important decision, and it set us on a slightly different path than the United States with regard to Cuba policy,” said Levy, in what had to be the understatement of the morning.

“Canada has pursued a two-track approach. The first track involves strategic engagement between Canadian officials and the Cuban govenrment to push for change from the top down,” he said.

“In 2005, Cuba’s then-foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, visited Canada. In 2007, our deputy minister of foreign affairs had a very productive four-day visit to Cuba.

“Last year, our agriculture minister went to Havana to sign a memo of understanding,” he said. “And most recently, Cuba’s minister of foreign investment came to Ottawa for meetings with his Canadian counterparts.

“Each of these visits provides the Canadian government with the second track of our diplomacy — engaging Cuban civil society, academics and economists to build capacity and demand change from the bottom up.”

Levy said Canada has a $12 million aid program focused on modernizing the economy, especially the poorer eastern provinces which have been affected by hurricanes and drought. Ottawa has also established eight “Canadian study centers” in universities throughout Cuba.

“No other country, including Cuba’s socialist allies, has this extensive in-country presence,” he said, proudly pointing to Canada’s funding of a successful 10-year program to teach market economics at the University of Havana. “We like to think we’ve contributed to the rise of a new generation of technocrats.”

Meanwhile, Canadian companies have exceeded $2 billion in foreign direct investment, and bilateral trade came to $1.7 billion last year. In 2008, some 818,000 Canadians visited Cuba, accounting for 35% of all tourist arrivals.

According to Levy, the Canadian Embassy in Havana meets regularly with dissidents.

“We hope to see a peaceful transition to a democratic, free-market system, and we use our many links to the island to promote our values,” he said. “Our two countries make it a policy to speak to each other frankly and respectfully, even on issues where the two sides disagree.”

Véron has served as head of the political and development section at the EU’s Washington mission since August 2007.

“We in the EU are in favor of constructive engagement, not a policy of coercion and sanctions,” said the career diplomat, a native of France.

“Our position is based on the common position agreed by the member states in 1996. In June 2008, we lifted the diplomatic measures imposed against Cuba in 2003,” he said. “This has led to the relaunching of the EU-Cuba political dialogue, which we recently confirmed, and we welcome the resumption of our cooperation agreement with Cuba.”

Following last year’s devastation by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the EU made 4 million euro in humanitarian aid available to Cuba. This year, it’s also implementing a 36-million euro project involving food security.

“There is an evolving situation with Cuba, a constructive spirit which prevailed in our meetings, at which human rights were openly discussed by both sides, along with other issues,” he said.

Véron mentioned the Czech Republic’s opposition to the Castro regime but explained that the EU speaks for all 27 member states.

“I would be at pain to name an issue on which there is no debate in the EU, and I don’t think Cuba policy is any different. There is a diversity of views. I’ve expressed the common position of our 27 members, and the Czech Republic is one of them.”

The bureaucrat said Brussels is thrilled that Washington and Havana are talking again.

“The EU obviously welcomes the resumption of this dialogue, which is close to our own policy of constructive engagement. We also noted the decision taken in early June by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States to terminate the 1962 resolution that excluded Cuba from membership.”

Following his speech, Véron was put on the defensive by Frank Calzón, founder of the Center for a Free Cuba — who asked what the EU really had to show for its “constructive engagement” approach.

The Frenchman kept his cool.

“Fifty years of embargo have not produced a lot of results either,” he responded with sarcasm. “We have a different approach, and we are farther away from Cuba than the United States, so it’s not entirely fair to point to the lack of results in our policy.”

Melrose, Britain’s first woman ambassador in Havana, took up her new post one year ago. She noted proudly that Her Majesty’s government has maintained uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Cuba since the country’s independence in 1902.

“Our engagement with Cuba is constructive but principled,” she said. “Both Labor and Conservative governments have consistently voted against the embargo in the UN General Assembly. The United States and Britain both share the same goals, but our approach to the tactics are very different.

“We have normal trade relations with Cuba, but it’s very small in comparison with Canada or our EU partners — or ironically with the United States, which is now Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner.”

The bulk of the ambassador’s speech was on the island’s severe economic crisis, which seems to get worse with each passing day.

“Cuba hasn’t faced anything this bad since the early 1990s,” said Melrose. “The trade deficit is spiraling out of control, imports are a staggering 80% of foreign trade, and that’s not only because of the collapse of nickel prices, but also because of a fall in revenues Cuba is getting from tourists. This could cost the Cuban economy a billion dollars or more this year.”

As if that’s not enough, she said, “there’s an acute liquidity crisis, Cuba’s defaulting on its debts, and foreign companies aren’t getting paid. Raúl’s drive isn’t showing results so far, and agricultural production outside the small private sector remains highly inefficient.”

“The new political rallying cry in Cuba, she said, is “save or die.”

“It takes a week’s worth of wages to buy a pound of butter. This is why remittances from the United States are so critical, and why the Obama administration’s freeing up of restrictions on travel have been extremely popular, and fuels hopes for more.”

Melrose downplayed the EU’s involvement in Cuba, even though Great Britain is a member of that club.

“Let’s have a reality check,” she said. “The EU has little to show for its engagement over the past year. There’s very little the Cuban government wants from the EU that it doesn’t already have: trade and investment, development assistance and continuing opposition to the U.S. embargo. So if there is any external actor that has potential leverage over Cuba, it is the United States.”

Melrose noted that not a single British minister has visited the island since 2005.

“That’s because the Cuban government is now making programs conditional on officials not meeting the opposition. That to us is not acceptable,” she said.

“On principle, we engage with dissidents. That is a standard part of my job. But all the signs are that the reform process will be driven from within the government, not by a very weak and fragmented opposition.”

Melrose said that dissidents she speaks to consistently demand the same thing: progressive, practical steps from Washington, more people-to-people contact, and an end to all travel restrictions for U.S. citizens.

“Therefore, it makes compelling sense — bilaterally and for the EU — to engage in frank but constructive dialogue with the Cuban government on an agenda that must in-clude human rights,” she concluded. “There is no point in lecturing and talking past each other. It gets us precisely nowhere.”

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