Cuba and Spain renew official contact

Campaign News | Friday, 26 November 2004

Thaw in relations with a divided EU begins

Havana 25 November - Cuba and Spain renewed "official contact" on Thursday, some 17 months after the European Union imposed sanctions on the island, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said.

"We met at the Spanish embassy ... and we have re-established official contact with the Spanish ambassador in Havana," Perez Roque said in an impromptu press conference at the foreign ministry, where he was joined by Spanish Ambassador Carlos Alonso Zaldivar.

After the brief remarks, the diplomats went to another room to hold a private meeting.

The meeting marked the first official talks that a high-ranking Cuban government official has had with a diplomat from any EU country since June 2003, when the European bloc slapped diplomatic sanctions on Havana after Cuban courts sentenced three Cubans to death for threatening human life in a boat hi-jacking and sentenced 75 so-called dissidents for being in the pay of the United States.

A month ago, Cuba refused to entry to three parliamentarians - Jorge Moragas, external relations spokesman of Spain's right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP), and Dutch colleagues Boris Dittrich and Kathleen Ferrier - who had openly declared their intention to meet with Cuban dissidents. The MPs travelled to Cuba on tourist visas whereas to meet with dissidents would have required diplomatic visas.

Since 1996, the European Union has had a common policy toward Cuba, conditioning better political ties on political changes in the island's political system.

However, Spain, under its new Socialist government elected last March, has been pushing for dialogue with Havana and a "new type of relationship" with the island in the belief that sanctions have produced only a stalemate.

Spain's foreign ministry late on Thursday stressed Madrid's desire to see normal relations between the whole of the European Union and Cuba.

"The foreign ministry notes the announcement by the Cuban authorities and signals that its objective is the normalisation of contacts between the Cuban authorities and all the embassies of the European Union, not just specific embassies," a ministry statement read.

"Spain will continue working with all its EU partners to achieve this normalisation with a view to reaching the objectives fixed by the common (EU) position adopted in 1996," the ministry added.

View from Europe - EU divided on Cuba

By David Jessop of the Caribbean Council

Tuesday 23 November 2004

Once again Cuba is back on the European Union’s (EU) agenda. After a year and half during which Cuban and European Government Ministers and officials have not been speaking to one another, the EU has begun to debate whether the policy changes it implemented in 2003 after the imprisonment of seventy-five dissidents and the execution of three hijackers, has had any effect.

On November 16, representatives of Europe’s twenty-five member states sitting in the Committee on Latin America (COLAT) decided to review the EU policy of inviting dissidents to receptions and national days at their embassies in Havana. They also agreed to look at alternative ways to ensure their contacts with civil society become ‘more effective’. The review is also expected to look at other aspects of the present EU policy that has halted all high-level Ministerial and official visits to Havana.

The official statement that followed the meeting of COLAT in Brussels was bland. It acknowledged that the lack of dialogue with the Cuban government was not positive. As a result EU Ambassadors in Havana will now be asked to propose ‘new measures’ to establish political dialogue with civil society. Their report is expected to be considered at the level of EU Foreign Ministers in December.

The attempt to restore political dialogue with Havana was begun by Spain’s new socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero: the EU nation with the greatest trade and cultural links to Cuba. Subsequent conversations between the British and Spanish Foreign Ministers saw both nations backing the need for a change to the policy personally developed by Spain’s previous Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. At a joint meeting in Madrid both nations made clear their belief that this had led to a dead-end, that ran counter to EU interests in Cuba.

However, within Europe opinion remains divided on how to address the question of dialogue with Cuba. A number of member states including Germany and the Netherlands, as well as several from Eastern Europe, oppose any change in policy without an improvement in human rights in Cuba or related positive gestures from the Cuban Government.

Also complicating any new decision is the fact that during the period in which the new EU approach has been in force, the European Union has been enlarged to include states that are opposed to any engagement with a country they see as exhibiting the policy characteristics of their own states before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The result is that there is now the possibility of EU Ministers failing to agree.

The original EU common position on Cuba seeks constructive dialogue and contact. However, European embassies practice since mid 2003 of inviting dissidents to National days at which Cuban Ministers would normally expect to be present has had the effect of putting relations with Europe into a deep freeze. In response, Cuba has ended all contact with EU Embassies and halted all programmes of development assistance with Europe.

To make matters more complex, the EU Common position has allowed Europe not to have to confront the US over its extra-territorial Helms Burton legislation that threatens legal action against EU and other companies alleged to be ‘trafficking’ in expropriated assets. Europe’s common position has enabled successive US Presidents to be able to waive every six months the Helms Burton provisions as they relate to Europe in return for the pressure for change in Cuba that the European approach implies. For this reason it cannot easily be amended or set aside.

More broadly, the European decision to look again at Cuba policy hides increasing cracks in one of the its few genuinely common foreign and security policy positions and points to the probability that a Europe of twenty-five may find it hard in future to be able to agree to any joint foreign policy stance. While the failure to agree on a Europe-wide basis on big issues such as the war in Iraq was hardly surprising, it is argued that failure to achieve consensus on a Cuba policy, an issue of relatively minor importance to the EU, suggests that a common European foreign policy may have little chance of success.

What happens next is far from clear. Cuba has managed without Europe for a years and a half and has continued to diversify its relations. While it recognises the strategic importance of Europe in a global context, its carefully crafted relations with other regions of the world and its continuing strong investment and trade relationship with the European private sector enable it to determine the pace at which relations with the EU will improve.

Of particular importance in this is Cuba’s recognition of the way that global power is changing. In this respect, the visit that begins on November 21 by the Chinese President, Hu Jintao and a large accompanying delegation of officials and businessman and women is particularly significant. China’s willingness to take a high profile in a nation informally at war with the US and one that is so geographically close suggests, following a similar high profile visits to Brazil, the rapid emergence of a new global political order.

Cuba is also seeing many of its predictions about social and economic change in Latin America come true and has been able to develop an increasingly close relationship with Venezuela and Brazil and other governments in Latin America. The result of all of this is that in Havana there is little sense of isolation.

The decision by Europe to again debate its Cuba policy is welcome but there is a sense that Cuba has won yet another round in its constant battle to maintain its principles.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at November 19, 2004

Spanish business calls on Madrid to normalise relations with Cuba

The Association of Spanish Entrepreneurs in Cuba has called on the Madrid government to normalise economic and political relations with Cuba.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero must "do what he can" to normalise relations, said the Association's President, Victor Moro.

"The Spanish business community in Cuba has been completely deprived of political support," he said, adding that he had warned last year that the deterioration in relations between Spain's then-Prime Minister, conservative Jose Maria Aznar, and Havana would have negative economic repercussions.

"Recent Spanish policy has not followed suit with steps taken by the business community in Cuba," Mr Moro said. He urged both countries to initiate "a dialogue to create conditions favourable to the development of economic ties" - on Cuba's part that will require improving the economy's flexibility and creating "a climate of trust" for foreign investors.

"Spain should have a prominent role in the development of Cuba," Mr Moro said, in the presence of Cuban Vice-President Jose Ramon Fernandez and several Cuban Cabinet ministers, Spanish ambassador Carlos Alonso Zaldivar and members of the Spanish business community.

"Our interests in Cuba are much bigger and very different than those of the other countries in the European Union".

At the request Spain's new Socialist government, EU members met on 19 October for talks on whether to revise the EU's "common position" and adopt a softer line towards Cuba.

One week after the meeting, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced after a meeting with his British counterpart Jack Straw that the two countries had agreed to "to revise some measures so they may be more effective".

That view received some echo from a senior member of the opposition Conservative Party in the UK, Michael Ancram. During a visit to the Havana International Trade Fair this month he noted that UK-Cuban trade amounts to just US$21m - and expressed concern that the UK is failing to take advantage of the business opportunities that Cuba offers. Specific mention was made of the biotechnology and agricultural sectors.

But he also noted the strained relationship between Cuba and the EU, said that solutions to resolve the relations were necessary and that he would be expressing his opinions to the Cuba Initiative organization.

"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 said.

The Trade Fair, which ran from 1-7 November, and attracted around 1,500 companies from 45 countries, saw an estimated US$193m of transactions agreed, say organisers of the Trade Fair.

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