Anyone for cocktails?
Jun 26th 2008 | LONDON AND MEXICO CITY
From The Economist print edition
Outsiders bet that bigger changes are on their way
THE diplomatic sanctions imposed by the European Union after Cuba jailed
75 dissidents in 2003 were hardly painful. They mainly consisted of
restricting political contacts and inviting dissidents to embassy
functions, prompting a boycott by Cuban officials that became known as
the "cocktail war". The sanctions were suspended in 2005. Nevertheless,
the EU's decision on June 19th to lift them was symbolically important.
It was another small indication that as Cuba edges towards life after
Fidel Castro, relations between the communist island and the outside
world are evolving too.
The EU's decision was a surprise. The socialist government in Spain—the
largest European investor in Cuba—has long wanted closer ties. Last year
its foreign minister began regular talks with his Cuban counterpart. But
the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, together with Sweden,
were reluctant to drop the sanctions while most of the dissidents
arrested in 2003 remain in jail.
They were won over by the notion that things are starting to change in
Cuba, especially since Fidel Castro formally handed over the presidency
to his brother, Raúl, in February. Mainly this has involved small
economic steps, such as dropping bans on Cubans owning various consumer
durables and turning more state land over to private farming. In lifting
the sanctions, the EU reiterated its calls for Cuba to release all
political prisoners, implement the international human-rights covenants
that it recently signed, and make "real progress towards a pluralist
Cuba's reaction to the EU's move was itself telling. In an article on a
Cuban website, Fidel Castro fulminated against "enormous hypocrisy"
(because the EU also agreed a streamlined procedure to expel illegal
migrants, who include many Latin Americans). Europe, he said, wanted
"impunity for those who would hand [Cuba] over to imperialism". But in
an apparent sign that it is no longer taboo to disagree with the
comandante, Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, described the
move as "a step in the right direction".
The United States is unlikely to follow Europe's lead. According to
Caleb McCarry, whom George Bush appointed as his "Cuba transition
co-ordinator", Raúl Castro's government would need to free all political
prisoners, allow civil and political freedom and open "a pathway to free
and fair elections" before America would relax its 46-year trade
embargo. Such changes are unlikely as long as Fidel lives, and are not
Any change in American policy therefore depends on the outcome of the
presidential election. Barack Obama has said that he would reverse
restrictions on remittances and family visits to Cuba imposed by Mr
Bush. That might be a prelude to bigger policy changes. John McCain
would maintain the existing policy.
As for Latin America, it has no appetite for isolating Cuba, says José
Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American
States. Since illness forced Fidel to turn over his powers two years
ago, several Latin American countries have sought closer relations with
Cuba. In January Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, visited
the island with a string of businessmen in tow, signing trade and
investment deals worth $1 billion.
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, has reversed his predecessor's
policy of speaking out against the lack of human rights in Cuba, and has
restored his country's traditionally close ties. Earlier this year
Patricia Espinosa, Mexico's foreign minister, renegotiated $400m of debt
on which Cuba had defaulted. Cultural exchanges have increased, and Mr
Calderón is expected to visit Havana soon.
This closer embrace of Cuba mixes self-interest with calculation. In
Mexico, as in the United States and Spain, Cuba is a domestic political
issue. Some commentators argue that in repairing relations, Mr Calderón
hopes to appease the left-wing opposition, which disputed his election
victory in 2006. Instability in Cuba, just 135 miles (220km) away across
the Yucatán Channel, could pose a security threat to Mexico, argues Luis
Rubio, a political analyst.
Both Brazil and Mexico see business opportunities on the island,
especially since Fidel's successors are likely to be more open to
foreign investment. And though they won't say so publicly, diplomats
from these countries see closer ties as a way of balancing the influence
of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, who has replaced the Soviet Union
as Cuba's main provider of aid. Unlike Mr Chávez, they will quietly
support political liberalisation in Cuba, they say. They believe that
Raúl Castro worries about Cuba's dependence on Venezuela and China. Some
officials in Washington accept this argument, and say they are happy to
see Latin American democracies seeking influence where the United States
However, not everyone in Latin America or Europe takes that view.
Supporters of the jailed dissidents were critical of the EU's move. Over
the past two decades, Latin American governments, egged on by outsiders,
have signed international agreements that oblige them to support
democracy and human rights in the region. In disregarding these when it
comes to Cuba, both they and the EU are being irresponsible, says Jorge
Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister.
What is certainly true is that those who argue for constructive
engagement as a way to bring change in Cuba have little to show for it
so far. But the American trade embargo has failed even more manifestly,
as well as inflicting harm on ordinary Cubans. So far, change in Cuba
has come in tiny, glacial movements. Many outsiders are betting that
over the next year or two the pace will increase.