UK Unions push for warmer EU ties with Cuba

Campaign News | Friday, 21 March 2008

By Kevin McCandless, Correspondent

London ( - Drawing on ties that go back decades, British trade unions have called on their government to help expand Europe's relations with the Cuban government.

In letters sent to the British Foreign Office and released to the media, the heads of more than 20 unions said that with Fidel Castro stepping down as president, it was time for a new approach to the island nation.

The British government should lobby the European Union to adopt a policy of constructive engagement with Cuba, including stronger diplomatic links and trade relationships, they said.

Looking ahead to an E.U. meeting in June that will discuss policy towards Cuba, the unions also want Europe to resist any pressure from the U.S. to support the American economic embargo.

David Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, the main civil service union, said in a statement that British exports to Cuba fell by 48 percent between 2000 and 2006 because of U.S. pressure. (American law penalizes foreign companies that do business with both Cuba and the United States.)

"Nearly fifty years after sanctions against the people of Cuba began, it is time for the E.U. to forge stronger cultural, diplomatic and sporting links," he said.

For years, British unions have forged ties with both the Cuban government and Cuban unions. While the U.S. regards Cuba as a Communist dictatorship, many on the British left see it as a bastion of socialism and a victim of American imperialism.

Delegations from British unions frequently visit Havana for May Day celebrations, while Cuban diplomatic officials appear at liberal conferences around Britain.

Rob Miller, director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London, said he was confident that the E.U. would start to engage more with Cuba.

Pressure by trade unions on the British government was key, he said, particularly since many lawmakers from the ruling Labor Party draw financial support from unions.

Many Labor lawmakers are former union officials, and dozens are given funds by various unions to run their election campaigns and for their local constituency party.

"There is an absolute link between the British government and trade unions," Miller said.

In 2003, following a Cuban clampdown that resulted in the imprisonment of 75 dissidents, the E.U. imposed diplomatic sanctions against Havana, including a ban on bilateral high-level visits. Europe's response to the clampdown never included economic measures.

Earlier this month, weeks after Fidel Castro's brother Raul formally took over, the E.U.'s top development aid official voiced optimism that changes were are on the way, especially in the area of human rights.

After talks in Havana with top officials, E.U. Commissioner Louis Michel told reporters that it was time "to start a new era" with Cuba and that diplomatic sanctions should be officially dropped.

Antoni Kapcia, an expert on Cuba at Nottingham University, said he didn't think the remarks by the E.U. official were particularly significant as Michel was known for being upbeat on ties with Cuba.

He said a more important development was the recent reelection of a Socialist government in Spain, which has been promoting reengagement with Cuba in recent years.

While some E.U. members -- especially those in formerly Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe -- remain wary of Cuba, Spain in 2007 sent its foreign minister for an official visit.

The British government is still considering its position ahead of the June meeting on Cuba, but Kapcia said that he doubted the unions would have a major influence on its thinking. The days of the unions wielding political clout were long gone, he said.

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