Obama & Latin America: New Beginnings, Old Frictions
Today, signs of frustration are unmistakable in Washington and in many Latin American capitals, despite Obama’s immense personal appeal and the continued promise of a more productive partnership.
This post is also available in: Spanish
There will be no shortage of challenges facing Spain when the country assumes the presidency of the European Union on January 1, 2010. Indeed, the lingering aftershocks of the global financial crisis, the evolution of the EU’s political architecture, and a full spectrum of foreign policy challenges ranging from the reconstruction of Afghanistan to the rise of China will be awaiting the attention of Spanish officials. Thus, it is striking that Spain has signaled that it will pursue the recalibration of European foreign policy towards the island nation of Cuba as one of its top priorities during its six month presidency. Indeed, while other European countries have intermittently focused on Cuba during their presidencies, few have identified it as a high priority and fewer still have been willing to expend significant political capital on revamping the 1996 “Common Position” on Cuba in the direction of greater engagement.
By all accounts, Spain wants to bring change to the European Union’s Cuba policy, and is planning to use its presidency to seal a new bilateral agreement on the EU’s ties with Cuba. In so doing, Spain is tackling a foreign policy challenge that often sheds more heat than light. Cuba has long presented a vexing problem for the European Union (EU), which has become increasingly critical of the Castro government but is committed to maintaining political and economic links to the island. European policy towards Cuba is further complicated by the domestic political controversies over Cuba that brew in several key EU member states, the divergent strategies favored towards dealing with the Castro regime and Cuba’s domestic political opposition, and the large number of states (27) engaged in foreign-policy making. Furthermore, the United States of America’s embargo of Cuba and the overall American effort to isolate the Castro government and starve Cuba of resources is a source of tension with Europe. In recent years, the European Union and the United States have attempted to paper over their deep policy and political differences regarding Cuba with the assertion that both Washington and Brussels share the same policy goal—a democratic transition in Cuba—and therefore the only disagreement is over whether that objective is best achieved through the engagement favored by Europe or the isolation promoted by the United States.
However, European and American conceptions of Cuba’s ‘democratic transition’ have much less in common than is widely acknowledged. The dominant European vision of change in Cuba is marked by Cuba’s gradual evolution to a social democratic model that continues to respect European trade and investment. The United States, by contrast, has historically sought the rapid collapse of the Castro regime and its replacement by a democratic, pro-free market government that offers compensation for past property expropriations and offers a major role for US-based Cuban exiles in the country’s future. The Obama administration has moderated the political rhetoric and offered suggestions that the U.S. is now more open to a broadly reciprocal approach of improving ties with Cuba, but much of the embargo has been codified into law by the U.S. Congress and thus makes it difficult for the U.S. to shift away from a longstanding position of requiring dramatic political change to occur in Cuba before full ties are restored. However, the Cuban policies promoted by Brussels and Washington do have one thing in common—their manifest failure to bring about any democratic change in Cuba. More than 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, it is apparent that the pace of political change in Cuba will be determined by principally by domestic factors. Indeed, while it is difficult to envision either the European Union or the United States having much impact on a future Cuban transition, it is quite plausible that the conflicting strategies pursued by Europe and the United States have only served to further diminish the effectiveness of their democracy promotion strategies.
The View from Europe
The European Union established its Common Position towards Cuba in 1996, which states: “The main objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.” The Common Position was conceived to be distinct from US policy; it was an opportunity to show that engagement could work. The Europeans thought that the policy could bring the “carrots” that the United States had eschewed in favor of punishing the Cuban regime with “sticks.” As a major source of trade for Cuba, the European Union could bring economic leverage to bear on its relations with the island. Finally, since no single European country had major interests in Cuba, there appeared to be little danger of any one state hijacking the policy—although over time the Spanish government under José Maria Aznar and later José Luis Zapatero has played a lead role in EU moves to take tougher or more conciliatory stances regarding Cuba.
In fact, European engagement of all kinds—trade, investment, tourism, cooperation assistance, cultural exchanges, and political dialogue—has reached an impressive level presenting recent years. While critical of the human rights violations and economic mismanagement of the Castro government, European mainstream politicians and newspapers recognize social achievements of the Revolution and speak favorably about its effects on creating a good business atmosphere. In trade, Europe replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s main partner following the latter’s collapse in 1991. In 2008 the European Union was, collectively, Cuba’s largest trading partner, although Spain is the only European country that is among Cuba’s top five trading partners. Forty-two per cent of Cuban exports to developed countries (USD 1.8 billion) go to the EU and almost two-thirds of Cuban imports from developed countries (USD 3.5 billion) come from Europe. Still, Cuba is the only Latin American country without a bilateral cooperation agreement with the EU and also the only member of the ACP outside of the Cotonou Agreement, the preferential trade and aid pact between the EU and 78 former European colonies.
Within Europe, Spain and the Netherlands are Cuba’s top trading partners accounting for almost 60 per cent of all EU trade with Cuba, and Italy and Germany are significant partners. Nearly 2 per cent of all beverages and tobacco imported to the EU come from Cuba (Eurostat, 2008). Ten European countries, led by Spain and Italy, signed an investment protection agreement with Havana. In 2005, European countries, again led by Spain, accounted for almost 60 per cent of the joint ventures in Cuba. More than 50 percent of the foreign direct investment in the island is European, and 25 per cent of it belongs to Spanish investors alone. The Cuban tourism industry, the most visible emerging sector in post-Cold War Cuba, has been developed mainly through contracts with European partners and serves mainly European clients. The Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia has almost two dozen hotels in Cuba (Res, 2007). Spain’s complex web of interests in Cuba has had repercussions in Spain’s domestic politics that have reverberated on the European stage.
Understanding Spain’s Schizophrenia over Cuba
There is no small irony in the fact that Spain was the key proponent of a more punitive approach to Cuba in the earlier part of this decade, and subsequently reversed course to lead a balky European Union towards warmer ties with the island. In March 2003, Cuba arrested 75 leading opposition figures and sentenced them to long prison terms. To make matters worse, in early April Cuban officials responded to a rash of hijackings by executing three men who attempted to commandeer a ferry in Havana. This action elicited a strong rebuke from Europe, and especially from the Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar, who wished to ensure there was no daylight between Spain and the U.S. as the administration of George W. Bush launched the Iraq War with full-throated Spanish support. In a common statement, the EU foreign ministries warned, “these developments which mark a further deterioration in the human rights situation in Cuba will affect the EU relationship with Cuba and the prospects for increased cooperation” (Council of the European Union, 2003). The European Commission announced that it would freeze the Cotonou negotiations with Cuba in May and, in response, Cuba denounced the European position as “arrogant” and withdrew its application to join Cotonou for a second time. Both sides continued to downgrade relations throughout the summer of 2003. In June, the EU implemented a number of diplomatic measures, frequently described as “sanctions” in the international press, much to the irritation of European diplomats who feared that the term sanctions made their response seem too close to the U.S. approach. These included limiting high-level government visits, reducing support for cultural events in Cuba, and inviting Cuba’s domestic political opposition to official activities at European diplomatic missions. This last policy sparked the so-called “cocktail party wars” whereby the Cuban government boycotted all diplomatic receptions and many European countries scaled back their embassy events. Spain, Italy, France and Germany began to downgrade diplomatic contacts with Cuban officials, canceled support for Havana’s Art Biennial and International Book Fair, and increased contacts with opposition groups. During this period, Cuban irritation with Spain became particularly intense. In retaliation, Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro led separate marches of hundreds of thousands of protestors outside the Spanish and Italian embassies, and in July, the Cuban government seized control over Spain’s newly renovated cultural center in Havana. In short, Spanish schizophrenia had provoked Cuban paranoia: together the two countries seemed to make the perfect odd couple.
The next year, Spain took on a greater role in leading a rapprochement between the EU and Cuba following the election of socialist Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in spring 2004. Other members of the European Union followed the Spanish lead in January 2005 and suspended the 2003 diplomatic measures, but relations remained icy as Cuba demanded that the measures be lifted permanently. A split soon emerged between Spain, which favored normalizing ties with Cuba, and the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, which favored a tougher approach to Havana and professed solidarity with the island’s beleaguered dissidents. While these nations do not support the US embargo on Cuba, they remain some of the strongest non-US allies of Cuban dissidents.
Spain, in conjunction with Greece, Italy and Portugal, worked to see the diplomatic sanctions fully lifted by June 2008. In particular, the new Spanish government proved more disposed to improving European ties with Cuba, brushing aside pleas from the Bush Administration to maintain diplomatic pressure on the island. The process towards normalization took a major step when Cuba’s then-Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque went to Europe in March 2007, where he visited Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos. Moratinos subsequently made two visits to Cuba in April 2007 and October 2009, where he praised new opportunities for collaboration and studiously avoided meeting with Cuban dissidents. While most European governments have demonstrated that they are willing to defer to Spain on Cuba policy, Spain’s own schizophrenia on Cuba will persist, as demonstrated by the sharp political clashes between Jose Maria Aznar’s Partido Popular and the Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español over how Spain should deal with the communist island.
Europe, Cuba and Obama: Will it Take Three to Tango?
It remains an open question whether the Obama administration will support an effort by Spain to overhaul the European Union’s Cuba policy. However, it has already become clear that President Obama views a positive relationship between Spain and Cuba as a potential asset for the U.S., as indicated by the revelation last October that Obama asked Zapatero to have the Spanish foreign minister Moratinos to carry a message to Cuban authorities during his most recent visit to the island. According to El Pais, Obama told Zapatero to “have (Moratinos) tell the Cuban authorities we understand that change can’t happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began . . . We’re taking steps, but if they don’t take steps too, it going to be very hard for us to continue.” (Reuters, October 25, 2009.)
Of course, while U.S. policy toward Cuba has evolved over time, but one feature has remained constant for more than forty years: the economic embargo imposed on Cuba by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Even when the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about the end of the Cold War, strong domestic support for the embargo among the Cuban-American community in South Florida led the United States to tighten the sanctions further. Given that his victory in 2000 hinged on the 25 electoral votes of Florida, President George W. Bush was especially responsive to the sensibilities of anti-Castro exiles when shaping U.S.-Cuba policy. During his eight-year term, the government sought to isolate the island by cutting back on legal travel to Cuba and limiting diplomatic contact. The main product of the Bush administration’s Cuba policy, however, was the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which issued lengthy reports in 2004 and 2006 on the U.S. strategy for hastening a transition to democracy in Cuba. Twice these reports were used as fodder by the Cuban regime, which was eager to cast the U.S. desire to democratize Cuba as an “imperialist threat.” Still, a congressional rule dating to the end of the Clinton years allowed all-cash, one-way agricultural sales from the United States to Cuba and transformed the United States into Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner by 2008.
While the Obama administration has distanced itself from the specifics of the Bush-era policy toward Cuba, it appears to have accepted the central premise that the goal of U.S. policy is the democratization of Cuba and the embargo represents a form of leverage to achieve that result. According to the White House, the goal of U.S. policy remains “a Cuba that respects basic human, political, and economic rights of all its citizens.” While the tactics of the Bush administration were particularly irksome to the Cuban government, the vast majority of the policy thus far remains unchanged under President Obama. The Cuban regime has not completely rejected President Obama’s tactful diplomacy, but it is unlikely to respond by embracing democratic reforms. Both sides have refused to budge on the ideological issues that divide them.
Though the United States and Cuba remain at loggerheads today, several factors have given rise to the idea of a pending détente. New leadership in both countries, changing attitudes in the Cuban-American community, and increasing international pressure on the United States to adopt a more constructive policy toward Cuba, have all paved the way for a series of small changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.
This was evident in the spring of 2009, right before the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, when President Obama moved to fulfill a key campaign promise by acting to lift all travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans with families in Cuba, and authorized U.S. companies to offer telecommunications services to Cuba. In June, the Obama administration went along with an OAS resolution that repealed the Castro government’s suspension from the hemispheric body, while insisting that respect for democracy remained a pre-condition for Cuba’s future participation. In addition, the U.S. government began to negotiate with Cuba directly over discrete bilateral issues such as migration accords and establishing direct postal service, a practice that was avoided by the Bush administration.
However, President Obama may have little incentive left to make further advances to Cuba. With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a prolonged financial crisis, President Obama has already turned his attention from Cuba and Latin America. Indeed, it is remarkable that two of President Obama’s early foreign policy moves were relevant to Cuba: the decision to close the detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and the reduction in restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances. These actions sent strong signals to American voters and the worldwide audience that the Obama administration will move quickly to address the perceived deficiencies U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America during the Bush years. They were also politically and economically cost effective, relative to other options, such as revamping the “war on drugs” or forging ahead with new trade deals during a time of rising protectionist sentiments. Indeed, President Obama’s small changes in Cuba policy helped to defuse growing tensions between the U.S. and Latin America over the Cuban embargo, even though they stopped short of a more far-reaching overhaul of U.S.-Cuban relations. In December, Cuban authorities arrested an American contractor who was working on a USAID-funded program to equip civil society groups in Cuba with better technology, which presented another sign that a quick thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations was not on the horizon.
Latin America’s Friendly Embrace
Spain will also want to keep a close eye on how the changing politics of Latin America may impact EU policy towards Cuba. Since assuming the presidency of Cuba in February 2008, Raúl Castro has ushered in a period of renewed warmth in Cuba’s relations in the Americas, whereby Havana has mended ties with previously estranged countries, while maintaining strong alliances with left-leaning partners. Perhaps more importantly, Latin America has responded with almost equal vigor across the ideological spectrum. With the addition of El-Salvador and Costa Rica this spring, two countries that had remained at loggerheads with Cuba for decades, Cuba now has normal diplomatic relations with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
There is little question that it is Venezuela that has become the apparent heir to the revolutionary causes espoused by Fidel Castro. Since Fidel stepped down in July 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has visited Havana more than a dozen times, typically meeting with Fidel and Raúl, as well as other top Cuban officials. The two countries have signed cooperation agreements or memoranda of understanding on an array of issues ranging from agricultural cooperation to the telecommunication industry. In December 2007, Chávez officially opened the Cienfuegos oil refinery, the product of a joint venture between PDVSA and CUPET, the state oil companies of Venezuela and Cuba, respectively. By July 2008, the refinery had produced nine million barrels of crude oil. Through Petrocaribe, Chavez’s plan to forge Caribbean alliances with oil, Venezuela provides generous terms on oil which gives a much-needed boost to a Cuban economy that is still struggling with a population that lives on an average of $17 dollars a month. Trade with Venezuela far outpaces trade with any other Latin American nation, accounting for over 68 percent of Cuba’s trade with Latin America. In 2008, trade with Venezuela jumped by 82 percent to $5.3 billion, over 25 percent of their total trade with the rest of the world that year. In return for subsidized oil, Cuba has sent almost 40,000 doctors, educators, and sports trainers to Venezuela, which have become a key pillar in that country’s new social policies.
Venezuela is Cuba’s closest ally, but the election of three left-leaning presidents added significantly to Cuba’s tally of friends in Latin America. Evo Morales, the indigenous leader and coca advocate, was re-elected in Bolivia in December 2009. Rafael Correa, the charismatic leftist economist and former finance minister, was elected president of Ecuador in November 2006 and re-elected under a new constitution in May 2009. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s historic Sandinista leader, was elected president of Nicaragua in 2006 and has remained close to Cuban leadership since. (A fourth ally, the Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya who was elected in 2005, forcefully argued for Cuba’s reincorporation in the OAS in June, but was ousted in a coup several weeks later.) Now Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, united in their state-led economic policies and their disdain for U.S. power, have become strong allies to Cuba.
The regional heavyweight Brazil is leading several efforts to promote Cuba’s integration with the hemisphere. In December 2008, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva organized a special Latin American summit that excluded the U.S. and Canada but pointedly included Raúl Castro. Lula visited Havana twice in 2008, and in early 2009. Prior to the Trinidad Summit in 2009, Lula visited Washington and made it no secret that he encouraged President Obama to improve ties with Cuba. Brazil’s opposition to the U.S. embargo is nothing new, but the vigor with which Lula has publicly pressed the United States on the Cuba issue suggests a new willingness of Cuba’s allies, both old and new, to vouch for it on the world stage. The economic relationship is booming. Trade between Brazil and Cuba has increased five-fold since President Lula was elected, from just under $100 million in 2002 to almost $500 million in 2008, and now Brazil is Cuba’s second largest trading partner in Latin America, and has openly signaled that it wishes to surpass Venezuela. During his January 2008 visit to Havana, President Lula signed several grants for food and infrastructure in Cuba and filmed a video with Fidel Castro. Brazil is also one of Cuba’s top prospects for cooperation in oil, and Lula signed an agreement to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Cuba by 2010.
In Mexico, one of Cuba’s oldest allies in Latin America, relations have steadily improved following the departure of Mexican President Vicente Fox. After the close victory of Felipe Calderón over the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador in July 2006, the new Mexican president reached out to the provisional Cuban government in what he said was an effort to improve relations with all of Latin America. The first step was taken by Mexico, when Luis Alfonso de Alba, the Mexican chairman of the newly elected UN Human Rights Council, oversaw the removal of the mandated human rights reporter for Cuba, showing that UN human rights votes would not come between Cuba and Mexico under Calderón. By December of 2007 Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa announced that Mexico had restored relations of respect and dialogue with Cuba for the first time since 2002. In March 2008, Espinosa visited Havana where she announced several areas of cooperation for the future, including migration, counter-narcotics efforts, agriculture, tourism, and joint development cooperation. Under the leadership of President Calderon, Cuba joined the Rio Group at the end of 2008, making the organization “more representative, stronger, more inclusive, (and) more plural,” according to Espinosa. In May, however, a widely-publicized outbreak of swine flu in Mexico placed a chill on the relationship when Cuba halted air travel to Mexico, prompting strong criticism from Calderón, who later postponed a planned visit to Havana. Meanwhile, in Central America, where close relationships with the United States have historically limited interactions with Cuba, a combination of diplomacy, elections, and declining U.S. influence in the region have resulted in a warming of relations with Raúl Castro’s government. Each of the seven countries in Central America now has normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Costa Rica and El-Salvador were the last Central American states willing to tow the U.S. line by not recognizing Cuba, but both countries initiated a dialogue with Cuba in early 2009. (In June, Fidel Castro denounced the coup against President José Manuel Zelaya in Honduras as a “suicidal error,” ties with that country remain frozen.)
A review of Cuba’s ties with Latin America over the past two years reveals that Cuba’s regional relations have improved significantly under Raúl Castro. There are several forces behind this paradigm shift. Raúl’s pragmatic, low-key approach contrasts sharply with Fidel’s penchant for picking high-profile fights. Many Latin American countries have become emboldened to conduct their foreign policies with greater independence from Washington, and they have identified the Cuban transition as an opportunity to set their relations with Cuba onto smoother footing. Cuba has also benefited from low-levels of international support for U.S. initiatives, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The diminished role of Fidel and emergence of President Obama have given the Cuban government the chance to craft a new foreign policy strategy that is less antagonistic toward the United States. Latin America, with few exceptions, has responded by soft-pedaling issues of human rights and democracy in Cuba.
Europe’s Role in Cuba’s Future
Spain seeks to recast the European Union’s relations with Cuba, but it is far from the only country seeking to increase its leverage at the moment that Fidel Castro is fading from the scene. Indeed, the European role in a future democratic transition in Cuba will be limited by the fact that any political or economic change in Cuba will need to be managed first and foremost by the Cubans themselves. Internationally, the United States remains the dominant actor for reasons of political and economic weight, proximity, and history, and few European countries, except Spain, have either the interest or the capacity to play a major role. Still, a coordinated effort from Europe would also have more weight in influencing the new Cuban leadership. In order to build a consensus that utilizes the leverage of collective action on the part of all 27 member states but does not compromise the core beliefs of each, the EU could act in the following areas.
First, Europe could play an important role in establishing a high-level non-governmental forum for multilateral dialogue. The wide range of international stakeholders engaged with Cuba—including foreign governments, international development agencies, Cuban diaspora groups, and NGOs—would benefit from a more regular forum for communication. It is clear that the sensitivity of the Cuban issue for the governments of Europe means that official governmental channels are ill-suited to generate constructive dialogue. International and multilateral institutions are similarly constrained—either because Cuba is not a member, as is the case with the Organization of the American States and the main multilateral development banks—or because Cuba’s official participation would make frank discussion difficult, as is true in the context of the UN or the Ibero-American Summit process.
Second, Spain is particularly well-positioned to help the EU to work with Latin America’s progressive democrats to re-engage with Cuba. Over the past decade, a number of Latin America’s historically left-wing parties have won power and carved out a moderate, democratic approach to governance in the region. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has emerged as the most visible symbol of the Latin American left, the reality is that progressive leaders with democratic values and moderate economic policies have won power in Brazil and several other key countries in South and Central America. Many of these leaders favor strong ties with Washington and have gently pressured Cuba to reform politically. However, there is a risk that Latin America’s moderate left will essentially cede leadership on the issue of Cuba to the region’s populist demagogues with tense relations with the United States, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. The hemisphere’s political template today presents an opportunity for Latin America’s moderate countries to become more active in bringing Cuba into the democratic community of states. One starting point would be to assemble a group of 10-12 current and former Latin American officials with unquestionable democratic credentials at home and a reasonable level of access to the Cuban government, who could meet with high-level Cubans from all sectors of society and assess the thinking of the current Cuban leadership and suggest possible ways forward.
Third, the time has come to replace the European Common Position with an approach that better suits the diverse interests and comparative advantages of the member countries. The European Union’s Common Position has outlived its usefulness and has hindered EU member states from developing a more flexible approach tailored to strengths and interests of each nation. It may be more helpful for EU members to agree to a narrow set of guiding principles, such as support for expanding political and civil liberties, the importance of dialogue, and continued economic engagement, rather than attempt to have a single policy of conditional engagement with the regime. Certain European governments can work to identify people in middle-to-senior management in the Cuban Government who might be open to change, especially in the economic sphere. Other governments may be better suited to work with non-governmental institutions such as the church or emerging non-state actors. A recast strategy by the European Union would allow it to harness its diversity as a strength in approaching Cuba, rather than a weakness that results in a watered-down approach to Cuba.
Fourth, Spain should convince the European Union to use its leverage to encourage the integration of Cuba into the global economic and political system. Cuba has grown accustomed to operating with diplomatic skill and aplomb within multilateral institutions like the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement and has garnered political capital within those orders as a traditionally shunned entity. But Cuban absence in other crucial bodies, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank, hinders Cuba’s integration into the core institutions of the international community and misses a key opportunity to engage Cuba multilaterally on core political and economic questions. Cuba’s relations with the Organization of American States also remain largely frozen despite the recent decision to repeal the 1962 decision that expelled the Castro government from the region’s leading multilateral body. The EU can develop dialogue mechanisms to explore ways to better integrate Cuba into critical institutions and leverage these resources to advance the quality of life for the Cuban people. Working multilaterally, the European Union should devise cooperative mechanisms to provide technical expertise, advice and financing to help Cuba evolve into a politically and economically more open society.
In the final analysis, Cuba’s continuing political evolution is likely to be difficult, and the country will face an array of serious problems. Washington has long been at odds with European and Latin American governments on how to deal with Cuba. U.S. concerns regarding suppression of political and civil liberties in Cuba are shared across Europe, as is U.S. support for democratic politics in Cuba. Still, there is deep unease with Washington’s punitive and restrictive policies, and its desire to shape events in Cuba. While the Obama Administration has given hope to those who seek improved US-Cuba relations, it will not be easy to shift the US strategy away from isolation towards broader engagement with Cuba. However, the modest proposals described above may help to facilitate a more constructive multilateral approach to Cuba’s future.
While the Spanish approach to Cuba has generated much controversy and skepticism, it has highlighted a key question: can the European Union help to advance greater political openness and economic opportunity for the Cuban people? Many European countries have cultivated close ties with Cuba over several decades, and European universities and non-governmental organizations have formed strong linkages with their counterparts in Cuba. If Spain provides sufficient leadership, then European nations can be an important source of technical expertise and advice – and financing – to help Cuba evolve into a more democratic and equitable society. Latin America also has a crucial part to play. Many of the region’s countries along with the newest members of the E.U. have made the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy over the past two decades, and these experiences carry important lessons for Cuba’s eventual democratization. While bridging the differences between the U.S. and European approach to Cuba will remain a major challenge, the Spanish presidency of the EU will offer a compelling opportunity to restructure both the EU Common Position and the transatlantic approach to Cuba.
Today, signs of frustration are unmistakable in Washington and in many Latin American capitals, despite Obama’s immense personal appeal and the continued promise of a more productive partnership.
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