US frowns on end of Cuba sanctions, but EU diplomats defend policy

Campaign News | Tuesday, 1 February 2005

Division apparent in transatlantic alliance

Washington Feb. 1 - The United States took a dim view Tuesday of an EU suspension of diplomatic sanctions on Cuba, calling productive dialogue with Havana "simply not possible."

In a statement that marked a real split between Washington and Brussels on Cuba policy, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We remain concerned that suspending the restrictive measures without achieving the goals for which they were put into place will embolden regime hardliners and dishearten the peaceful opposition."

But European ambassadors to Cuba defended the European Union's decision, expressing optimism that the end of the freeze would lead to several improvements.

They also assured opponents of Cuba's government that the EU would continue to raise human rights issues on the Caribbean island and maintain contact with dissidents.

"There is no reason to lack trust in our desire to try and do both things at the same time - improve dialogue with the (Cuban) government, and with civil society, including the peaceful opposition," Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the EU's business attache in Cuba, told the Associated Press.

Kuhn von Burgsdorff spoke while attending the opening of a state-sponsored photography exposition in Havana. During the crisis, many European diplomats abstained from going to such events.

He said he expected to see tangible results in the areas of economics, politics, cooperation and human rights, but declined to comment on what type of contact EU officials would maintain with Cuban dissidents.

The European Union lifted its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba on Monday, easing a standoff after Havana clamped down on US-backed dissidents in 2003.

In Washington, Mr Boucher said United States will "encourage" the European Union to actively support Cuba's peaceful opposition and to "make more vigorous efforts to focus international attention on Cuba's egregious human rights record."

Washington would also "continue to work with the Europeans on how best to promote human rights in Cuba and how best to support the democratic process."

The EU decision came after the Cuban authorities released a number of the alleged dissidents on helath grounds and signaled a re-opening of diplomatic contacts with EU embassies in Havana.

"Our experience in terms of watching what's happened with Cuba and the Castro regime is that a productive dialogue with the Castro regime is simply not possible," Boucher added.

"Past efforts by the Europeans and others have yielded neither political nor economic reforms. And therefore we believe that the kind of pressure that has existed in the past is the only approach, the best approach of trying to secure change in Cuba."

The European Union's suspension of sanctions is temporary and will be reviewed by July.

EU restores high-level contact with Cuba

BRUSSELS, Jan 31. - European Union foreign ministers have agreed to restore normal diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.

The decision, announced by Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, ends a freeze on high-level contacts imposed by the 25-nation bloc after Havana cracked down on US-backed dissidents in March 2003.

A statement approved by the ministers said the EU was willing to resume "a constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities aiming at tangible results in the political, economic, human rights and cooperation sphere."

But the EU insisted it would continue to raise human rights issues and demanded the "urgent" and "unconditional" release of all so-called dissidents, including those still serving sentences given in 2003.

Asselborn told a news conference the new policy would be reviewed in July.

"We highlighted the need to support a process leading to democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and basic freedoms," he said.

The EU stressed that any normalization of relations would not curtail its contacts with Cuban dissidents.

"The EU would develop more intense relations with the peaceful political opposition and broader layers of civil society in Cuba, through enhanced and more regular dialogue," it said.

Cuban authorities said earlier this month they had resumed formal ties with all of the EU's ambassadors in Havana. They had suspended relations in retaliation for the EU's ban on high-level governmental visits and participation in cultural events in Cuba and the Europeans' decision to invite dissidents to embassy gatherings.

In November, the EU reviewed diplomatic sanctions against Cuba and Havana released 14 of 75 imprisoned dissidents on health grounds.

In Prague, former Czech President Vaclav Havel also urged the EU to keep supporting Cuba's dissidents even as it restores diplomatic relations with Havana.

The thaw could eventually have economic consequences since the 2003 dispute also saw the EU defer a request by Cuba to join the EU's trade and aid pact with African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, which could have granted easier access to European markets. Havana withdrew its request after the EU linked it to human rights improvements.

Cuba also refused to accept further assistance from the EU's aid budget, which had allocated $11.3 million to the island in 2002.

The 25-nation EU is Cuba's biggest trading partner, with two-way commerce totaling $2.09 billion in 2003.

Previous reports:

London Jan. 30 - Foreign ministers from the European Union are poised to perform a diplomatic about-turn and restore high-level ties with Cuba, ending a two-year freeze in relations with Cuba.

Despite expected last-minute opposition from the Czech Republic, which at the behest of the US remains concerned about the move, the decision will be taken at a meeting in Brussels on Monday January 31.

It risks annoying Washington, which has argued that the EU ban on ministerial contact should remain in place.

Opponents to restoring high-level ties have argued it bows to explicit demands from Cuba, which has frozen contact with most EU embassies in Havana since member states imposed a range of diplomatic sanctions in 2003.

Under a Spanish proposal being discussed on Monday, EU embassies would be advised not to invite dissidents to national day receptions, a practice that formed part of the sanctions. At the same time, direct ministerial contact between Cuba and EU member states would be restored.

EU governments have had virtually no dialogue at ministerial level with Havana since June 2003, when the Cuban government jailed 75 US-financed alleged dissidents and executed three hijackers found guilty of terrorist acts.

But the strategy of trying to pressure Cuba into addressing human rights concerns has had little effect. In fact, the Cubans responded by freezing out the EU's embassies.

Diplomats in Havana are in broad agreement that it would be better to revive high-level contacts across the board and downgrade invitations to opposition figures.

Bill Rammell, foreign office minister, told the Financial Times in London on Sunday: “It is important we engage constructively and critically with Cuba. We want international dialogue with the peaceful opposition as well as a normalised relationship with the Cuban government.”

Brussels 27 Jan. - The European Union will suspend sanctions against Cuba next week, in a further step to end a standoff sparked by the arrest of some so-called dissidents in 2003, according to a draft document seen by the news organisation EU Business.

The "temporary" move, expected to be made at a regular meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday Jan 31, comes after Cuba announced this month a renewal of official contacts with all EU countries.

"All the measures taken on June 5, 2003 will be temporarily suspended," said the draft conclusions of Monday's talks in Brussels, in reference to the EU decision 18 months ago to slap the sanctions on Havana.

This will notably allow the resumption of high-level visits, the statement noted, but said such trips must be used to push for "improvements in human rights and the rights of dissidents in Cuba."

The EU froze relations with Cuba in 2003 following a crackdown that saw 75 US-financed dissidents jailed for terms of between six and 28 years. Three Cubans found guilty of terorism and threatening human life in a hijacking were executed.

Fourteen dissidents have since been released on parole for health reasons.

This month Cuba announced it was restoring diplomatic ties with all EU states represented in Havana, including the four most opposed to lifting the sanctions: the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

But the suspension of the sanctions is not a definitive end to the row.

According to the draft, the EU also "reiterates its urgent demand that Cuba unconditionally release all political prisoners ... still in detention," adding that the foreign ministers will examine the suspension again before July.

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