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The U.S. and the EU: Arm Wrestling over Cuba

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Friday, May 12, 2006


The U.S. and the EU: Arm Wrestling over Cuba

EU-LAC Summit
Today’s EU-Latin America Summit will highlight one reality: when it comes to a number of Latin American issues, there is scant unity to be found among members of Europe’s all powerful political and economic bloc. Several forces are currently pulling the EU’s policies towards the Western Hemisphere in conflicting directions, most notably the key divisions that have opened up over Cuba and Venezuela. The key players in this struggle for policy preeminence are Spain, which, in the last year, has led the charge for a new, closer, realignment between the regions; and the Czech Republic, which has mimicked Washington in its aggressive stance towards Cuba and now Venezuela.

The current EU-Latin America summit might afford the EU an opportunity to make a stand against the Bush administration’s ideologically driven anti-Castro strategy by promoting the best interests of not only Europe but Latin America as well. Yet an internal struggle looms before such a breakthrough could be achieved. Under Spain’s prompting, the EU could move towards a new, more intense alignment with Latin America, which could open up new avenues of trade and economic development. However, there are those in the EU who staunchly back the Bush administration’s Latin America policies, and feel comfortable with Washington and Prague’s human rights vendetta against Castro Cuba, and which are also inclined to buy into the Bush administration’s rhetorical outrage against Venezuela.

Official EU Position: Cooperation, Common Position, and Constructive Dialogue
On February 27, 2006, the European Council adopted the Commission Communication on "A stronger partnership between the European Union and Latin America,” stating that the objective of the European Union is “to continue to cooperate closely with Latin America to promote our common values and interests, and to contribute jointly to peace and security, protection and promotion of human rights and the strengthening of citizens' participation and democracy." Yet this precept is far from clear, and certainly far from operational; and it is over Cuba where the greatest conflict has emerged.

The specific EU policy towards Cuba, adopted in 1996, is known as the Common Position. Its purpose was “to encourage the process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba, and a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people. [Furthermore], as the Cuban authorities make progress towards democracy, the European Union will lend its support to that process through closer economic cooperation and more intensive dialogue.” The Common Position therefore seeks to use trade relations and economic interdependency as a means of promoting liberal principles in Havana.

In addition to the Common Position, the EU also has adopted “constructive dialogue” as its official policy towards Cuba. Under this proposed initiative, Europe would help Havana develop economically and institutionally, while conducting dialogues regarding the promotion of human rights. This has not been universally acclaimed however: the anti-Castro publicly funded Center for a Free Cuba notes that “they did not address the repression in Cuba nor the violation of internationally recognized labor rights.”

Grasping Across the Pond
Washington often has tried to influence EU policy on Cuba. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which profoundly strengthened the U.S. embargo on Cuba, was energetically rejected in Europe. Brussels, knowing full well that the measure in large part was aimed at EU member nations’ investments and trade with the Castro regime, immediately passed a resolution making it illegal for its citizens to comply with offending clauses of the U.S. act, because they violated the fundamental sovereign rights of EU members. In response, according to a Reuters press release on October 28, 1996, the U.S. “faulted the Europeans for not joining with the United States in pressing harder for democracy and improved human rights on the communist-ruled Caribbean island.” Furthermore, Reuters quoted State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns as saying "We wish the Europeans also had an expressed public interest and made a priority the situation of the many many people in Cuba whose rights are being denied by the Castro government ... We'd like to see more talk from the Europeans about democracy in Cuba.”

Opposing Schools of Thought in the EU: Prague and Madrid
Two opposing political positions have emerged regarding Cuba within the EU, led by Prague and Madrid correspondingly. Prague is leading a grouping against warmer relations with Cuba, consisting mainly of Eastern European countries that have long and unforgiving memories of Soviet-era repression. These bitter memories of the Prague Spring of 1968 have solidly driven them into a working relationship with the Bush administration on the issue of Cuba. This stratagem has, to a certain extent, found some support in the EU. For example, according to the BBC on June 5, 2003, the European Union, helped along by a desire to repair frayed ties over Iraq, officially condemned Cuba for “deplorable” actions which violated fundamental freedoms, aimed at “depriving civilians of the ultimate human right, that of life.” The EU went on to “impose a range of diplomatic sanctions against Cuba.” On January 5, 2005, the BBC reported that the European Union would limit high-level government contacts with Havana as well as invite Cuban dissidents to national-day celebrations at embassies, as a retaliatory response to Havana’s imprisonment of 75 dissidents that year. Although this diplomatic sanction has since been repealed, several of the newer EU members remain adamantly opposed to any detente with Cuba. As noted by the EIU ViewsWire on Feb 15, 2006, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland called for more stringent conditions for any liaison between the EU and Cuba. Furthermore, these countries have publicly stepped up their work and funding of Cuban dissidents and, together with Germany, have “called for a change in EU policy on Cuba to give stronger support for a democratic transition.”

Ideological concerns for Prague also extend to South America. Czech President Vaclev Havel in his 2000 Millenial address portrayed Venezuela as a democracy in danger. Havel, an influential figure in Czech foreign policy, has continued to be outspoken on Venezuela since the end of his term in 2003, joining 70 other likeminded world leaders in expressing concern over Chavez’s application of the penal code, a position spearheaded by the Bush administration.

Madrid, in direct opposition to Prague, is leading the European movement towards improving relations with Latin America in general and expanding relations with Cuba specifically. Spain’s first step was to shift its policy into strong opposition of the EU’s 2003 diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, when José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office in March of 2004. On October 14, 2004, according to the BBC, Spain reversed the hard-line on Cuba entertained by ex-Prime Minister Aznar and declared that EU's sanctions on Cuba proved “ineffective” and therefore proposed ending the "symbolic" contacts with Cuban dissidents and seeing if relations between Europe and Havana could improve. Spain’s efforts have not been without success: The EU has recently stopped inviting the anti-Castro opposition to its diplomatic functions. It is worth noting, however, that much of Zapatero’s interest in such détente could be economically motivated, as Spain is one of the largest investors on the island.

Spain and Cuba
Spain has also worked independently of the EU to foster closer ties with Cuba and the rest of Latin America. At the recent Ibero-American Summit, Zapatero, along with a large number of Latin American leaders, called for the US to abandon its sanctions towards Cuba and the release of its own Cuban political prisoners now being held in the United States—namely the Cuban Five. Adding punch to such rhetoric, Spain has chosen to adamantly defy the EU’s open support of America’s stance on Cuba, in light of the great economic potential to be found there. This helped make Spain one of the main source of foreign investment in Cuba, where it is particularly focused in the tourism sector. Also, the Spanish newspaper El País noted on June 26, 2005 that Spain would begin to undertake energy investment programs in Cuba to help alleviate the grave electricity deficiencies that have crippled the island’s economy. Furthermore, El País noted on March 26, 2006 that Cuba had become Spain’s third largest recipient of foreign direct investment in all of Latin America, lagging behind only Mexico and Brazil, countries which are much greater in size. However, El País acknowledged that accurate data is not readily available, since Havana and Madrid do not divulge all the necessary information, perhaps in order to avoid possible retaliation from Washington.

Spain and Venezuela
Zapatero’s policy independence from both Brussels’ and Washington’s worldview extends beyond Cuba to Venezuela and the rest of Latin America. The restoration of this trans-oceanic relationship has become known as the “second colonization” of South America, and is largely based around economic engagement. In doing so, Madrid has chosen to ignore Bush’s envenomed stance against Cuba and Venezuela, and proceed with what it feels are appropriate policies. Earlier this year, Zapatero signed a deal with Venezuela, facilitating the sale of about 1.7 billion dollars in military transport planes and coast guard vessels, specifically 10 transport planes, two ocean surveillance planes and eight patrol boats. The sale to President Chavez created a marked rift between Washington and Madrid, and decreased the possibility of an easy rapprochement between the two, yet was a clear show of diplomatic solidarity with the Venezuelan government that did not go unnoticed elsewhere in the region.

The current EU-Latin American/Caribbean Summit will force the European body to address its conflicting interests and motives when it comes to this hemisphere. Prague, as Washington’s legate, will be arguing either publicly or in the corridors for a continuation of recent hostile policies towards Latin America, specifically Cuba, though they could be interpreted to include Venezuela. Such policies would help restore the EU to Washington’s beneficence. Spain, on the other hand, will be clamoring against the threat of Prague’s advocacy of a Washington-backed policy on the issue of Cuba. Madrid will push for both political cooperation and dialogue, as well as new investment and development initiatives for Cuba and other Latin American states such as Venezuela. Spain may have other matters on its mind. As one of the godfathers of the Ibero-American summit, it has a superb vehicle to be a dominant factor in a body that includes Cuba but omits the United States. Regardless of the path the EU eventually decides to take, Zapatero and his government have given hope to the belief that the European Union could possibly come to form a potent counterbalance to U.S. asymmetrical stature in Latin America; and that constructive engagement, rather than confrontation, will produce more tangible returns for the region’s population, including in the areas of human rights and democratization.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Ashley Dalman

Friday, May 12, 2006

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