EU agrees to rethink Cuba policy

Campaign News | Wednesday, 17 November 2004

End to 'cocktail war' is signalled

BRUSSELS, Belgium 16 November - The European Union agreed on Tuesday to rethink its practice of inviting Cuban dissidents to diplomatic receptions in Havana after the invitations soured relations between Cuba and the bloc.

The EU policy of asking political opponents to National Day cocktails so incensed the Cuban government that it has shut its doors to European diplomats. Ambassadors are shunned and telephone calls not returned.

Representatives of the EU's 25 member states have reviewed policy towards the Caribbean island at the request of Spain's new Socialist government, keen to end the row.

No decision was taken on Tuesday on whether to continue inviting dissidents to official receptions, so the policy remains unchanged for the moment, a spokesman for the EU's Dutch presidency said.

One suggestion to stop holding National Day receptions at all was quashed, diplomats said.

Madrid would press for an easing of the EU stance despite a diplomatic spat last month after Cuba barred entry to one Spanish and two Dutch lawmakers on a trip to support dissidents, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said.

Proposals required

"The concrete result this morning is that chiefs of mission in Havana have been asked to come up with proposals to make this dialogue with dissidents and civil society in Cuba more effective," the spokesman for the presidency said.

Envoys will report back next month and the recommendations will have to go to EU foreign ministers for any policy change.

One Brussels diplomat said the EU was divided between a group including Spain, France, Britain and Italy which wanted to take the initiative to improve ties with Havana, and others such as Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic which argued Cuban leader Fidel Castro should make the first move by releasing political prisoners.

Some former Communist new EU member states from eastern Europe took a tough line on Cuba, diplomats said.

The EU hardened its position last year after some 75 dissidents were arrested and three Cubans who hijacked a ferry to try to escape to the United States were executed summarily.

The Dutch spokesman said EU countries confirmed by consensus their support for the concept of "constructive engagement" with Cuba including the government, civil society and dissidents.

Largest ever UK trade dlagation arrives in Cuba

HAVANA 16 November - Britain's largest trade mission ever to visit Cuba arrived yesterday, one day ahead of a key European Union (EU) meeting in Brussels on future European relations with the island.

The 40 visitors include potential investors in tourism, biotechnology, agriculture, education and energy, said Lord Colin Moynihan, the head of the UK- Cuba Initiative.

The common EU policy since 1996 conditioned better political ties on political changes in Cuba. Relations, however, have been strained since the Cuban authotities jailed some pro US political activisits in 2003.

However, the Socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is seeking to change the common policy, arguing that the sanctions are not effective.

Britain has stated it supports Zapatero's proposal.

The size and scope of the British trade mission clearly shows the strength of ties between Havana and London, said Moynihan upon arrival.

The trade mission will stay until Friday, he said.

The British trade mission follows a brief visit to Havana ending November 4 by a group of five EU lawmakers aimed at improving diplomatic ties.

The EU lawmakers met with top Cuban officials, but did not meet with dissidents who represent the outlawed Cuban opposition.

HAVANA Sun 14 November - The European Union is considering a shift in policy toward Cuba that would get it back on speaking terms with President Fidel Castro's government, diplomats say.

EU policy-makers will meet on Tuesday November 16 in Brussels to discuss whether to stop inviting dissidents to National Day receptions in Havana, a practice that so incensed the Cuban government it shut its doors to European diplomats.

Spain and Britain believe the diplomatic freeze, in which ambassadors are shunned and telephone calls are not returned, has led to a dead-end that runs counter to EU interests in Cuba.

"I think the policy will change by the end of the year," one European diplomat said. "There is a mood for change, provided we can get it right."

"We are in limbo. The freeze makes it hard for us to do what we should be doing here, which is prepare for a post-Castro transition," he said.

The issue has divided the 25-country EU.

Germany and the Netherlands, as well as several new members from Central Europe that lived under Soviet communism, oppose changes in policy without an improvement in Cuba's rights record.

The attempt to restore political dialogue with Havana was begun by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain, the EU country with most trade, cultural and historical ties to Cuba, its former colony.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, meeting last Monday with Zapatero in Spain, doubted restoring dialogue with Havana would help advance democracy in Cuba. Schroeder said "underlying conditions in Cuba still need to be developed."

Spain wants to lift measures adopted by Brussels last year in response to the imprisonment of 75 dissidents and the summary execution of three Cubans who hijacked a ferry to try to escape to the United States. Only seven of the imprisoned dissidents have been freed.

The EU steps included inviting dissidents to National Day parties and ending high-level political visits to Cuba.

Spanish officials said those measures had served their purpose of raising the profile of Cuban dissidents and gaining them international recognition, but had led to a dead end that limited European influence in Cuba.

The diplomatic freeze hinders contact with middle-level Cuban officials, as well as intellectuals and artists who have been told not to attend European diplomatic events.

Some countries insist whatever changes are made -- scrapping the National Day receptions altogether is one option -- the visibility of Cuba's dissidents must be maintained.

Sceptical diplomats in Havana believe Cuba has no interest in improving relations with Europe if it means making changes.

"The former eastern bloc countries are saying: 'Forget about it. We know how these people work and you will get nowhere,'" said one diplomat.

With the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush, who is stepping up efforts to undermine Castro, Cuba will likely keep the lid firmly shut on dissent, a South American diplomat said.

Cuban dissidents oppose any relaxation of policy toward Castro, who they believe is on his last legs. They say they can survive without the cocktail parties, like they did for years.

"The problem is not getting invited to receptions. I can drink rum at any corner bar with an ambassador," said dissident journalist Manuel Vazquez Portal, freed from jail in June. "The issue is recognition for an opposition movement that has been repressed for so long."

Spain and UK to seek “more effective” policy on Cuba as top Tory calls for more trade

Spain and the UK have agreed to look at revisiting European policy on Cuba "so it can be more effective," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said following talks with British counterpart Jack Straw.

"The United Kingdom agrees with the Spanish position to revise some measures so they may be more effective," Mr Moratinos added on 28 October.

Meanwhile in Havana on an official visit, shadow foreign minister Michael Ancram called for more trade between the UK and Cuba.

Last month, Spain called on the European Union (EU) to help Cuba negotiate entry into the Cotonou Agreement, an EU trade and development aid pact with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) developing countries.

European Union nations met on 19 October for talks called by Spain on whether the 25-nation bloc should adopt a softer line towards Cuba.

The officials agreed to request reports from their respective ambassadors in Cuba on the current situation there, EFE news agency reported. These reports will be the basis for discussion during the next meeting, taking place 16 November.

A group of EU legislators, meanwhile, ended a two-day visit to Havana on 4 November. The visit, said Spain’s Miguel Angel Martinez, who leads the group of Cuba "friends" in the European Parliament, aimed to “move forward from a blocked situation that we see as very unfortunate”.

The delegation met Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon, and Roman Catholic cardinal Jaime Ortega, and EU ambassadors in Havana.

No meetings were held with anti-government activists.

"I came here to try to solve a problem, not to try to help poison a situation," Mr Martinez said. "We decided who the parties were who it was in our interest to see, since we believe they have the duty and power to get out of a situation that is in no one's interest

United Kingdom could increase trade with the island

FOR Michael Ancram, opposition spokesman onm foreign affairs in the British Parliament, the experience of his first visit to Cuba and the Caribbean is highly important, as it has confirmed what his country should do to increase its trade with the island.

After touring various pavilions of the Havana Trade Fair, he noted that UK-Cuban trade amounts to merely $21 million per annum, well below that of the United States, which maintains its blockade of the island, and added that there are business opportunities for the United Kingdom that are not being taken up.

Ancram expressed his intention to encourage British companies to make a full analysis of business possibilities with Cuba, highlighting the biotechnology sphere in which the island has developed and which constitutes an area for sharing experiences and closing commercial transactions to the benefit of both sides.

He also referred to agriculture another sector for mutual deals in the form of joint enterprises.

On the other hand, the minister stated that the current difficulties between the European Union and Cuba should be resolved. He added that he would talk with his government about formulas that could be discussed in order to reach solutions and move ahead.

Ancram observed that he was impressed to see the participation of U.S. entrepreneurs in FIHAV 2004 in spite of the blockade and added that there were certain lessons to be deduced from that.

He also recalled a constant interest in relation to Cuba, and mentioned the Cuba Initiative organization, whose chairman Lord Moynihan is to make a visit to Havana in the next few days and with whom will be discussing the experiences of his first visit to the island.

“I hope that what I have learned throughout these years will allow me to make a contribution to constructing better relations between Cuba and the United Kingdom,” he concluded.

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