Bilateral Relations between the EU and Cuba (2003 – 2008): 5 years, little progress

On March 18, 2003, when the world’s attention turned to the war in Iraq, a wave of repression swept across Cuba. 75 dissidents were arbitrarily arrested. 27 of them were journalists. They were all convicted to harsh jail sentences.

On March 26, 2003, the EU Presidency issued a Declaration on behalf of the European Union condemning those arrests and demanding that the persons detained, whom it considered prisoners of conscience, be released without delay. On that occasion, the Presidency remarked those events highlighted the common position on Cuba adopted on 1996, specifically the call for democratic reform and greater respect for human rights and also declared that violations of fundamental civil and political rights would be monitored very closely by the European Union and would continue to influence the Union’s relations with Cuba.

Following this initial response, the EU Presidency issued another declaration, on June 5, 2003, calling once more the Cuban authorities to immediately release all political prisoners. This declaration also expressed the EU’s unanimous decision to limit the bilateral high-level governmental visits, reduce the profile of member states’ participation in cultural events, invite Cuban dissidents at national days’ celebrations, and proceed to the re-evaluation of the EU common position on Cuba.

These measures had an enormous impact within the dissident community in Cuba, which felt supported by the EU. In specific, the active promotion of the leaders of the democratic movement that the Cuban regime had so eagerly tried to conceal from the general population was widely seen as a promising positive step of the EU’s diplomacy.

The irritation that these measures generated within the Cuban nomenklatura was so obvious that reversing them became a priority for its diplomats. And obviously also for Cuba’s allies in Europe that focused on the indifference in some governments and pro-Castro activism from Zapatero’s ministers after he won the Spanish elections in March 2004.

On June 16 2003, the General Affairs and External Relations Council declared its intention to monitor the situation of the Cuban citizens engaging in peaceful opposition, recalled the measures previously announced by the EU and considered the Cuban authorities’ behavior towards the EU, its Member States and acceding States, unacceptable. The EU Presidency’s conclusions from June 19 and 20 2003 clearly reflected this position.

Due to the sudden increase of human rights violations in Cuba, the EU felt compelled to re-evaluate its Common Position towards the country six months early on July 21, 2003. The External Relations Council concluded that not only there had been no positive steps, but that the human rights situation had severely deteriorated.

Immediately after the arrests, there were demands and suggestions made during parliamentary debates in the European Parliament’s plenary sessions of April and May 2003 (“urgencies” and “questions to the Council,” respectively).

I personally led a group of eleven members of the European Parliament that addressed a letter to the three Presidents – President in Office of the Council, President of the Commission and President of the European Parliament, as well as to the High-Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The letter was a direct response to this extremely serious crisis in Cuba and made a specific set of proposals, namely:

– To honour Oswaldo Payá, the Sakharov Prize winner in 2002, whom the European Parliament had awarded the previous December and to give a strong and visible practical expression to this homage;

– To have Representatives of the Council, the European Commission and of the European Parliament contact Mr. Oswaldo Payá as soon as possible in Havana, in order to transmit to him our sympathy and our support and to invite him to come to Europe immediately so that he could present European institutions with his vision of what was happening in Cuba;

– That Oswaldo Payá would be invited to come to Europe to meet in person with the highest levels of the Presidency in office of the EU, the High-Representative for the CFSP and Secretary-General of the Council, the President of the Commission and the competent Commissioners, the President of the European Parliament and the plenary of our Parliament.

More than 200 Members of the European Parliament individually supported this appeal, which I named the “Sakharov Initiative”. This included Pat Cox, the President of the EU Parliament at the time, who on May 26, 2003 personally endorsed the initiative.

Once the Damas de Blanco were prevented from attending the award ceremony after being granted the 2005 Sakharov Prize, the Sakharov Initiative included a standing invitation for them as well. This would allow them to travel to any of the seats of the European Parliament to receive their prize and the homage of European parliamentarians properly.

Notwithstanding several parliamentary resolutions demanding firm action from various European institutions and members states against the constant violations of human rights by the Cuban authorities and police apparatus, the EU’s position has been softened lately.

Following the political change in Spain after the socialist victory on March 14, 2004, it soon became clear that the new Spanish government would attempt to reverse the measures adopted by the Council that were seen as one of the main causes of discomfort in Havana. The perfect excuse for this change was the release of some prisoners in June and November 2004, regardless of the fact that they were not released unconditionally and that majority of the others arrested during the Black Spring remained in jail.

As a result of this, on January 31, 2005, the Council agreed to temporarily suspend the restrictions it imposed in June 2003 with regard to Cuba and to take stock of the situation again between then and next July in the light of developments regarding democracy and human rights in that country. In June 2005, in June 2006 and in June 2007, under Zapatero’s pressing and, with a few exceptions, the indifference of several member States, the Council repeatedly maintained the suspension of the restrictions, did not adopt any other new possible imaginative measures, even though it acknowledged that the human rights situation in Cuba had not improved at all and that in some ways had even got worse. The texts of these EU’s unfortunate Council resolutions are indeed quite puzzling and seem to defy elementary logic.

Since then, in fact, the only thing that really changed in Cuba was its leader’s first name. The rest still remains substantially the same: no freedom of the press, no free elections, no Parliament worthy of the name, none of the political fundamental liberties, no freedom to travel, hundreds of political prisoners stuck in harsh prison conditions (including 55 prisoners from the March 2003 crackdown), the Damas de Blanco continuously harassed, and more.

Specifically, the change of policy regarding the invitation of Cuban leading democrats to official events at the EU’s embassies in Havana was incomprehensible and deeply disturbing. On the one hand, these invitations should never be seen as a “sanction,” but rather as a normal practice of democratic countries such as ours. And, on the other hand, as I made clear to the Presidents of main EU institutions at the time, because such a specific policy change towards Cuba meant that European countries and the European institutions would be accepting that a third country had the final say about whom we, Europeans, were allowed to invite, or not to invite, to our embassies and delegation. This is absolutely shameful.

I have no objection in general to political dialogue. On the contrary, I think political dialogue is positive and often decisive. But I regret that European diplomacy allowed itself to fall into such a trap.

After 3 years of the new European approach towards Cuba, it has becomes crystal clear that it has been a failure, as I and others foresaw. The Cuban regime could verify that the EU approach is not seen as soft power, but instead as soft and powerless. The Cuban democrats were left without public praise, help and recognition and as a result many have become suspicious about the coherence and persistence of European policies. This is sad, really sad.

The recent change of protagonists in Cuba’s leadership should be used by the EU as a moment to reconcile itself with the dissidents it abandoned and to show resolve to test the new leadership’s proclaimed openness. The Sakharov Initiative must be put in place and can work as an excellent effective indicator, drawing the attention to those Cubans we have honored for their commitment to the welfare and liberty of Cuban people and to the peaceful transition to democracy in Havana.

I share the view that we must be open-minded regarding Raul Castro’s coming to power and that we must examine any positive sign of change. But, in international politics, especially where promoting democracy is concerned, an open mind only succeeds if accompanied by a sharp eye, a clear voice and a firm hand; and, of course, by lending attentive ears to our suffering friends that we must never abandon, nor neglect.

As has been widely announced, the EU intends to reanalyze its Common Position towards Cuba soon. I believe that the problem is not the Common Position itself, but the way it has been dubiously interpreted over the last three years. More than a new document, what the EU needs now is to stand by its solid old values: solidarity, respect and moral strength. To change our approach towards Cuba without listening to the ones facing the daily burden of oppression would be the absolute opposite.