This week in Havana, Cuba and the European Union will begin negotiations designed to put an end to 25 years of quarrels. Earlier this year, on February 10, Brussels adopted negotiating directives for a political dialogue and co-operation agreement with Havana. On that occasion the EU’s Vice President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, stated that “these negotiations will help consolidate our engagement with Cuba. This is not a policy change from the past. Just as we want to support reform and modernization in Cuba, we have consistently raised human rights concerns which will remain at the core of this relationship.”
Notwithstanding that statement, the proposal means a tacit recognition that the so-called Common Position adopted in 1996 by the European Council of Ministers has failed. Instigated by the right wing Spanish government of José María Aznar, who later became one of the Bush Administration’s main allies in the prosecution of the Iraq war in 2003, the Common Position was an attempt to align European policies with U.S. policies on Cuba. That development coincided in time with the adoption by Congress and the Clinton administration of the Helms-Burton legislation, which strengthened and codified American unilateral economic sanctions against the Caribbean nation. The supporters of Helms-Burton in Capitol Hill argued that both policies would bring about the desired “regime change” in Cuba. After almost 20 years, no such thing has happened.
In 2003, the same year of the Iraq invasion, the European Union, reacting to developments in the Island, but also to the global context, imposed mild sanctions on Cuba. It coincided with the moment when Washington made a renewed effort to punish Havana by prohibiting Cuban Americans from travelling to the Island except for once every three years and significantly curtailing the already minimal visits of Americans, which had received a boost by Clinton’s people-to-people policies in 1998-2001.
Inside the EU there have always been some discrepancies on how to deal with Cuba. Some governments, a minority usually closer to Washington, have supported different kinds of sanctions, never reaching the level of an all-out embargo, nor attempts at diplomatic isolation, as the United States has done. But a majority of members has refused to follow that lead. As a matter of fact, since the 1990s European diplomats have been criticizing and even condemning U.S. sanctions policy towards Cuba, arguing that they are unilateral and illegal as they are unacceptably extraterritorial. At the UN and other international forums, European diplomats have consistently voted with Cuba and against the United States on this issue.
The EU and its members states have always favored engagement and normal relations with Havana: most of them maintain embassies, consulates and even aid offices in the Cuban capital; 18 of them have signed cooperation agreements with the Cuban government; and they have never excluded Cuba from participating in their summits with Latin America and the Caribbean, which take place through two different processes: the Iberoamerican conferences of heads of states and government since 1992; and the Latin America and Caribbean-European Union summit gatherings since 1994. Havana was even selected to be the venue for the 1999 Iberoamerican conclave, an occasion in which both the King of Spain and José María Aznar himself visited Cuba, together with other Presidents and Prime Ministers of members countries.
After relations deteriorated significantly during the period 2003-2008, the European Union started to change its approach to Cuba. That process was determined to a great extent by events in the Island itself, where Raúl Castro had succeeded his brother Fidel as President and initiated a reform process.
As a result, both sides began a political dialogue with high officials visiting each other’s capitals. More recently the Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands and France have met President Raúl Castro in Havana. This dialogue has reinforced the European presence in Cuba, which includes the functioning in the country of a number of European NGOs and the promotion of cultural, educational, academic and scientific exchanges. To mention just a few instances: France maintains a cooperation agreement that permits Cuban scholars to do their PhD work in French institutions and supports the presence in Havana of the Alliance Française; young Cubans attend British educational institutions under the Scheveningen scholarship program and the British Council is active in the Cuban capital; there is a Humboldt Chair at Havana University designed to promote German studies. More recently the European Union itself has started to develop cooperation activities either directly or through UN programs designed to promote food security and neutralize the damage of climate change, for example.
All these initiatives, which are quite successful, have been carried out by engaging with the Cuban government, which usually accepts and supports them, and not by a policy of sanctions and isolation. They contrast significantly with the bungled US attempts to carry out its activities in Cuba through covert programs financed by funds from USAID, not only ignoring Cuba’s government but with the clear intention of undermining or subverting its authority. The big difference is that European activities are carried out with full respect for Cuban sovereignty, a demand that is dear not only for the government but also for civil society.
From the European perspective, two significant achievements have been obtained: in 2010 the Cuban government released more than 300 political prisoners; and European governments and non-governmental organizations have been increasing their noteworthy presence in Cuba. In addition the EU is, together with Venezuela and China, one of its three largest trading partners, as it is the first foreign investor and the third tourist supplier.
In a development that shows the pragmatism of the Havana government, its Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, announced on March 3 that it would accept the invitation of the European Union to start negotiations. This is a reversal of the traditional Cuban position, which was to demand as a pre-condition the repeal of the Common Position. In making this decision, its leaders have not ignored the words of the European Union’s Vice President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, who stated on February 10th: “I hope Cuba will take up this offer, and that we can work soon towards a stronger relationship.”
First Vice President Miguel Díaz Canel, the most prominent figure of the Cuban government after Raúl Castro and the person most likely to succeed him when he retires in 2018, assured journalists in Havana on April 27 that his government would favor anything that can be constructed on the basis of respect. Last December 21, President Raúl Castro used practically the same words to describe what he labeled as a more civilized relationship with the United States: “If we really want progress in our bilateral relations, we will have to learn to respect our mutual differences and to get accustomed to live peacefully with them.”
There is no doubt that Cuba and the European Union have taken mutually significant steps to raise the relationship to a higher level. It won’t be an easy process to reach a cooperation agreement. Yet the European Union and Cuba are showing both realism and pragmatism by abandoning outdated positions towards each other. Those attitudes bode well for the negotiating process.
What does this mean for the United States?
It is evident that once more a significant global actor has decided not to follow the U.S. lead and take a different stand on an issue in which Washington is frozen in time. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have candidly recognized the fact that the American policy towards Cuba has to be updated in a thoughtful and creative manner. Brussels has shown the way. In this sense, the State Department could take the cue from its European partners by embracing bold steps that are not hostage to lobby groups which are losing their grip on the Cuban American electorate anyway, as recent polls have shown.
The European Union is positioning itself in Cuba in ways that can only be beneficial to their interests and values. Change in the Island is relentless and will result in a more open and market-oriented society. The smart thing to do is to facilitate transparent exchanges and not carry out half-cooked covert operations as it has recently been revealed about USAID Cuba programs. These programs tend to reinforce the climate of mistrust that exists in general, even though Cuba and the United States cooperate on sensitive security issues like counter-narcotics operations.
As in other similar processes, there are differences among Cuban political and social leaders about the pace and scope of change. Continuing present American policies benefits the opponents of reform in a country where foreign unyielding sanctions and attempts at isolation have in the past reinforced the siege mentality and fed the conservative arguments to reject any opening.
EU leaders have learnt that lesson. It is up to the US to choose between a policy of engagement, as the European Union has done, or continue trying to bring about change by coercion, an attitude that has obviously failed dismally. Recent Cuban reforms facilitate trade and foreign investment. U.S. economic, trade, political and societal interests can benefit from them. Updating the policy, as the EU has done and President Obama pledged to do, could reboot the relationship when younger leaders in the Island, like Mr. Díaz Canel, who is 53, are in the process of replacing the older revolutionary leadership. These leaders have only known the United States as the country that has embargoed and punished them for the last 55 years, almost all their lives.
Since the global economic recession in 2008-09, several European countries have struggled with debt crises that many analysts have likened to Latin America’s struggles in past decades. What do the two situations have in common? What differentiates them?