24th Nov 2020

Political intrigue clouds EU Sakharov award

  • Former political prisoners from Cuba were welcomed in Brussels by EP President Jerzy Buzek (c) last month (Photo: European Parliament)

Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, the winner of the 2010 Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament's prestigious human rights laurel, has impeccable credentials as a long-committed fighter against repression in his country.

But behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the political groups within the assembly over who was to get the award has left a bitter aftertaste for some.

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"For the third time in a decade it's a Cuban. It's too much. It's a political decision that undermines the award," French far-left MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat said after the decision was announced on Thursday (21 October). Cuban candidates also picked up the prize in 2002 and 2005.

The Farinas award was pushed through by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and the anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

But according to several parliamentary sources, the Green group was also involved in the deal-making. Contacts said the Greens and the EPP came to an arrangement concerning the shortlist of three Sakharov finalists - Mr Farinas, Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (a campaign group of ex-soldiers exposing human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories) and Ethiopian opposition politician Birtukan Mideksa.

Under the alleged pact, a number of EPP deputies voted in support of the Green candidate, Breaking the Silence, at a parliamentary committee session last Monday. The NGO made the final shortlist, guaranteeing some publicity.

In return, the Green group agreed to back Mr Farinas over Ms Mideksa in the final stage of the decision-making on Thursday, once its candidate had been ruled out. Thursday's decision was made at a behind-closed-doors meeting of the political group chiefs, the so-called Conference of Presidents.

Green party co-president Daniel Cohn-Bendit has denied this was the case, saying Green support for Mr Farinas in the final stage was due to the fact the Cuban got the most votes in the Monday committee event.

The far-left's Ms Vergiat has called on parliament in future to elect the Sakharov winner by a simple plenary vote. In the past her group has been criticised for having a romantic attachment to the Communist administration in Cuba.

But contacts inside the Conference of Presidents meeting told this website that Socialist and Green group leaders also voiced discomfort that a Cuban candidate got the prize a third time. All the group leaders in the end asked parliament President Jerzy Buzek to look into ways of reforming the decision-making process in time for next year's award.

"It doesn't take Einstein to work out that these political movings are really what the prize is about," said one Socialist parliamentary official.

The Spanish angle

The Farinas award has also been linked to political games in Madrid, where the centre-right opposition has sought to undermine the Socialist government's efforts to broker a lifting of EU sanctions against Cuba.

"It's no secret that the EPP's nomination was largely determined by its Spanish contingent," one parliamentary official said.

Spain's centre-right Popular Party has traditionally adopted a tough line on Cuba under the two Castro brothers.

But the Socialist takeover of power in Madrid in 2005 led the country to soften its stance on Havana, with Spain expected to make the case for lifting the EU's remaining sanctions at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday.

Cuba said last week it would release and send to Spain another five political prisoners on top of its earlier pledge to free 52 political detainees, strenghtening Spain's anti-sanctions case.

Some southern states have lent support to Madrid. But nine-or-so EU member states - including Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland - are strongly opposed to altering the EU's policy towards Cuba.

"Yes, Cuba has done some good things but a lot more is needed," an EU diplomat from a large member state told this website. "We can have a discussion internally, but that's where the buck should stop for the moment."

The diplomat wondered whether the recent cabinet shakeup in Madrid would dampen the country's push. "It was not so much one country but one man, [former foreign minister] Miguel Moratinos, who was making all the noise," the contact said. A Spanish diplomat said Madrid did not intend to change its position.

Farinas speaks out

For his part, Mr Farinas firmly opposes any lifting of the EU's common position, claiming that Spain is being influenced by business interests and colonial-era one-upmanship with the United States.

"Investments, especially in the tourism sector from Spanish companies, are playing a big role in convincing the Spanish government not to openly critise Havana," Mr Farinas told this website during a telephone interview last week.

"There are also historic differences between Spain and the US that date back to the war in 1898, and the Spanish government wants to avenge itself of the US defeat."

Spain and the United States declared war on each other in April 1898 due to tensions over the island, resulting in the Treaty of Paris later that year, under which Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States for the sum of $20 million, and relinquished all claim of sovereignty over Cuba.

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