Until June 30, Spain holds the presidency of the European Union. Madrid has always taken the lead on Cuba, and so it has been since the Socialists won the 2004 election. Under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain prodded the EU to lift sanctions imposed after the Black Spring of 2003. By March 2009, the EU had normalized relations with Havana.
After the Popular Party eked out the Socialists in 1996, Spain moved the EU to adopt the Common Position, laying out the objective of encouraging Cuba to launch a democratic transition, respect human rights and open the economy while rejecting "coercive measures.''
Instead, the CP offers Havana incentives to mend its ways. Now Madrid hopes to persuade the EU to eliminate or dilute the Common Position.
Europeans may be Venus to the American Mars, but democracy and human rights lie at Europe's core. The EU takes the Universal Declarations literally: Human rights are ours no matter what our politics.
Rescinding the Common Position won't be easy. All EU members must agree to it, and there's resistance from Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Last November German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Zapatero that the CP's fate was entirely in Cuba's hands. It'd be lifted only if Havana showed meaningful progress.
Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has been the strongest advocate for shelving the Common Position. Yet, he recently told parliament that Madrid would "confine itself to open a debate'' in the European Union, a far cry from the promise to lift the CP during his trip to Cuba last October. A few weeks later Zapatero told Der Spiegel that he favored "an exigent dialogue'' with Havana. Some Spanish officials, moreover, don't like the idea of tying up Spain's EU presidency with the CP. Cuba is not exactly a top EU priority.
Cuba, nonetheless, struts around with an illusory sense of self-importance. Foreign ministry officials repeatedly say that negotiations with the European Union depend on "the elimination of the interventionist and unilateral Common Position.'' Reality check: Cuba needs the EU, not the other way around.
Havana has generally conducted an efficacious foreign policy. Its relations with countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are normal if not outright friendly. Last year, for example, Cuba sailed through its review in the U.N. Human Rights Council, thanks, in part, to the goodwill earned in the developing world.
To be sure, U.S. policy has also helped Havana insofar as the embargo musters wider international censure than the regime's ingrained violations of human rights.
Even so, Cuba is at a foreign-policy crossroads. Its cries of "national sovereignty'' won't play well with the European Union. Would Cuban leaders accept a weakened Common Position? Unlikely. If the EU discards the CP, the next logical step would be an economic-cooperation agreement. Only all such EU agreements carry a democratic clause. In 1996, Brussels offered one and Havana sent the EU emissary packing.
In contrast, Vietnam accepted the democratic clause, taking in stride the occasional reprove on human rights and even making some changes. Hanoi also signed and ratified the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cuba signed two years ago with no date in sight for ratification. Why the difference? Decades ago Vietnam put the economy and living standards at the center. Ordinary Vietnamese have greatly benefited while economic interests, not ideological crusades, guide foreign policy.
Cuba can't or won't do the same. Unlike Vietnam, Cuba offers little in terms of trade and investment. With Obama changing the tone and some substance of U.S. policy, railing against "imperialism'' doesn't carry the same punch. Calling Obama an "imperial and arrogant liar'' as Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez did late last year may win plaudits in Caracas but not in too many other quarters.
Cuban leaders themselves are, of course, the problem. Neither sticks nor carrots works with them. If Spain fails to have the CP lifted or if it succeeds and Havana again turns down European economic cooperation, then they win once more. Screaming from the barricades is what they do best no matter how dearly it costs the Cuban people in freedom and treasure.