Rebellious Spain stands firm in pursuit of change to EU Cuba policy
Officially, the European Union has a Common Position on relations with
Cuba. In reality, Spain has deviated from that position to such an
extent that it sees itself as a lone force pushing for change in the
How does one solve a problem like Cuba? Even the United States, which
has had a very clear Cuba policy for the past 50 years, finds it
increasingly difficult to understand the real motives behind the
contradictory actions and words coming from the regime in Havana. The
political climate seems to change daily; strong hints of democratic
reform and the upholding of human rights are often followed by a return
to bellicose anti-capitalist statements and crackdowns.
Despite the ambiguous nature of Cuba's current international persona,
the US position remains clear. Since April 2009, President Barack Obama
has been implementing a less strict policy toward Cuba and has stated
that he is open to dialogue with Havana. Some economic sanctions and
travel restrictions have since been eased but the trade embargo, which
has stood since 1960, will only end when Cuba shows real political change.
If only the European Union's stance was as clearly defined. Until
recently, it looked as though it was. But in the last few months,
divisions have started to appear and the bedrock on which Europe's Cuba
policy is built has started to show some cracks.
Complicated bloc agrees on Cuba position in 1996
While the US has the luxury of speaking with one voice, the EU has 27
which have to be singing from the same song sheet for anything of any
consequence and credibility to be unanimously agreed upon. It looked as
though the EU choir was on the same page when, in 1996, the member
states all agreed on the Common Position in regard to relations with Cuba.
Before the US under Obama came to the same decision, the EU agreed that
the best way to encourage a change in political direction in Cuba would
be through offering incentives. The EU would normalize relations with
Havana if there was progress on human rights and democratization. The EU
would not inflict sanctions as such but its constructive engagement with
Cuba would be implemented as part of its third world aid policy which
would benefit the population, not the regime.
"The EU seeks to assist the people of Cuba to develop their society and
the EU believes that democratic values, respect for human rights and
economic freedom are part of this development," Dr. Juan Diaz, the
director of the CSS Project for Integrative Mediation, a Berlin-based
conflict resolution project financed by the German Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "The EU does not necessarily believe that
sanctions are the most appropriate ways of achieving these goals."
The Common Position survived two rounds of EU enlargement in 2004 and
2007, with the new eastern states signing up to the 1996 agreement.
However, EU solidarity on Cuba began wavering when Spain elected a
socialist government in 2004 and then took a substantial blow when that
same government took over the EU presidency at the start of this year.
Spain pushes own case for Cuba dialogue
As holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, Spain tried to
massively influence the EU position on Cuba by pushing for increased
dialogue and a normalization of relations despite Cuba not yet meeting
the benchmarks set out in the Common Position.
"The relationship between the EU and Cuba has always been superficial,"
Thiago de Aragao, Latin American senior research associate at the
Foreign Policy Center, a London-based European think-tank, told Deutsche
"The only difference has been the relationship between Cuba and Spain,
which due to history has been deeper. Spain has always had closer ties
with Cuba. Spain has always been the most active EU state in encouraging
talks between the countries in the hope of democratic openings."
Spain's argument that a more relaxed EU position would actually help
achieve the human rights and democratic reform it sought took a massive
blow in February with the tragic death of Cuban dissident Orlando
Zapata, who died as a result of a hunger strike while in prison. Spain
was forced to condemn Cuba along with the rest of Europe and the
international community and reinforce the EU position on standing firm
until human rights abuses ended.
Moratinos strikes blow for Spanish policy with prisoner release
However, the struggle around the Common Position went on. Outside of EU
structures, Spanish Foreign Secretary Miguel Angel Moratinos continued
to pursue his own Cuba policy, much to the annoyance of fellow EU
members, particularly Germany, France and Sweden.
"Germany holds strong to the Common Position and has been quite critical
to the Spanish efforts to change it," Professor Guenther Maihold, the
deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security
Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.
"German Chancellor Merkel has been quite clear that she wants to see
changes in the human rights record on the island before Germany would
accept discussing a change in the European politics with respect to the
The criticism from fellow EU member states toward Spain became more
muted in early July, however, when Moratinos, working with Cuba's
Catholic Church, managed to get the Cuban government to agree to the
release of 52 political prisoners.
Despite the apparent breakthrough brought about by Spain's brokering of
the deal, and the acceptance of a number of the released dissidents by
Madrid, the release did not get universal praise. Some of the
dissidents, forced to leave Cuba as part of the release deal, accused
the Cuban government of a shallow act to gain temporary favor.
They also called on the EU to remain firm in its Common Position to
withhold support to Cuba until human rights and democracy were
respected; a slap in the face to Spain which was hoping to promote its
own approach to Havana through its successful negotiations.
"While Spain seems to see in the release of the prisoners a moment of
change in the Cuban regime, many observers see heavy economic problems
as a future trigger to some opening of the economic system of the
island," Professor Maihold said. "After the release of prisoners we have
always seen the arrest of new people and no change in the general
politics of the regime."
It seems likely that the debate over the EU's Cuba policy will continue
once the bloc's political summer break is over. Many in the EU see the
release of the political prisoners by Cuba as a step toward Havana
meeting the criteria Europe has set for the normalization of relations
but not as a justification for increased dialogue or ties.
Author: Nick Amies"