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25th Jun 2017

Spain keen to bury EU pro-democracy ideas on Cuba

  • The famous Cuban cigar, but what does a post-Castro future hold for the isolated country? (Photo: wikipedia)

Spain is trying to forge a new rapport with the Cuban government amid speculation that Fidel Castro's bad health could accelerate regime change in the Caribbean dictatorship. But other EU states want to step up pro-democracy work with the island's opposition groups instead.

"It's unthinkable that Spain cannot defend and develop an intense and constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities," Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said during a rare visit by an EU minister to the island this Monday (2 April), Reuters reports. "We also want a relationship between the European Union and Cuba."

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"We are making progress on establishing a permanent and formal mechanism for political dialogue, which doesn't exclude the subject of international cooperation to promote human rights," Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque replied, adding that "Spain...is, today, within the European Union, a privileged negotiator."

The Spanish move comes in the context of poor relations between Brussels and Havana. Under Spanish pressure, the EU in 2005 suspended diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, but Havana today receives less than €1 million a year in EU poverty relief and just €330,000 a year for EU cultural projects involving Cuban-approved NGOs.

The status quo is based on an EU policy paper dating back to 1996 which says that "the objective of the EU in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights" but despite its tough wording the old EU model has done little to strengthen pro-democracy opposition groups.

The German EU presidency in February drafted a new policy paper on Cuba, sparking a discussion among EU diplomats at a 29 March meeting in Brussels. Strategic parts of the text are to remain secret but the document is also designed to give rise to a public EU political declaration on Cuba in June.

"The new document says little that hasn't been said by the EU before. The wording is very carefully balanced so as not to offend the sensibilities of the [EU] delegations, in terms of what we are trying to achieve," an EU official said.

But Spain, supported by Greece and Cyprus, wants Berlin to shelve the new EU paper despite its softly-softly approach. Madrid says any EU policy shift in mid-2007 could damage prospects of a "new era" in Cuba-EU relations, with the opening created by the fragile health of 80-year old leader Fidel Castro and upcoming elections in March 2008.

Spain was a colonial power in Cuba until 1898. It accounts for almost half the EU's €2 billion a year bilateral trade with the island, while Spanish firms, such as Repsol YPF, are currently bidding for access to new oil reserves of up to 5 billion barrels found in Cuban waters last year.

New impetus wanted

Meanwhile, another camp of EU states led by the Czech republic wants a different approach. Prague is keen to insert new "operational" ideas into the German paper that will help the EU prepare the Cuban opposition for a peaceful hand-over of power instead of talking with the likely "official" successors of Fidel Castro's reign.

The pro-civil society group also includes Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Portugal but would have to get all 27 EU states on board in the consensus-based legal structure of EU foreign policy making.

"We don't want 'tough' language on human rights and Cuba in the new policy paper - we want operational ideas," an EU diplomat from the pro-democracy group said. "The status quo is not an option. Doing nothing implies support for the Cuban authorities," another pro-NGO EU diplomat said.

The Czech camp's argument was bolstered by a European Commission report on Cuba delivered at the 29 March get-together, with the commission saying existing EU policy has proved "ineffective" in terms of reform, opposition groups remain weak and the EU is losing influence to Venezuela and China in shaping Cuba's future.

Italian liberal MEP Marco Cappato, who visited Cuba on 18 March, also advocates greater EU engagement with pro-democracy activists, saying repression has become "worse" since sanctions were suspended in 2005 and expressing concern over future instability on the island if the EU continues on present lines.

"Why should we wait to see what happens? We should influence what happens," Mr Cappato told EUobserver. "The EU's role as an international player will be undermined if we just wait and then, if there is violence around the elections, we express concern or impose an embargo."

Spain in it for the money?

Spanish and Czech diplomats are unwilling to speak openly about the simmering disagreement, which is bubbling away at a low diplomatic level in Brussels and is set to see a follow-up meeting on 11 April. But Czech NGOs are happy to say out loud what Prague is thinking in private.

"The visit of the Spanish minister of foreign affairs to Cuba is driven by bilateral economic interests," People in Need analyst Kristina Prunerova said, predicting that Mr Moratinos will not meet any real dissidents on the trip but that Havana might release a handful of political prisoners to help Madrid "sell" its policy back in Brussels.

"The situation is getting worse in Cuba every day. More and more people are being detained, harassed and threatened," Ms Prunerova said. "But with this visit, Spain is giving the sign that the Cuban regime is acceptable as a partner and can be dealt with on a regular basis."

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