EU's lifted sanctions could be turning point for Cuba


July 22, 2008 11:34 | by Amy Coonradt

On June 19, at a summit in Brussels, the European Union announced that it would lift its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba. The gesture was predominantly symbolic, as the restraints, which had been put in place in 2003, had been temporarily suspended since 2005. The decision came about largely due to Spain's 2005 initiative to normalize its relations with Cuba, despite opposition from several other EU members. While the EU's sanctions only froze development aid and visits to Cuba by high-level European officials, the move to lift them signals a commitment to increased dialogue and openness between the EU and Havana. It will surely have positive effects not just for Cuba but for the EU's currently frosty relationship with Latin America over immigration issues. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a contrast to the hard-line policy of the United States, which has maintained an unbending trade embargo against Cuba since 1964.

The End of a Long Battle

The EU's sanctions were enacted in response to a March 2003 crackdown on Cuban dissidents after Havana had executed three men for hijacking a U.S.-bound ferry, in which a government official was murdered. The crackdown resulted in the imprisonment of seventy-five other Cubans for up to twenty-eight years. At the time, the EU condemned the crackdown, calling it "deplorable," and refused to negotiate with Cuba until it improved its human rights record. According to the EU Report, an angry Fidel Castro accused the European body of "bowing to Nazi-Fascist US policy," and he was further outraged when EU member nations began inviting Cuban dissidents to their Havana embassy functions.

The strained relations between the EU and Cuba began to thaw in January 2005, when Spain's new Socialist government under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero began a movement within the EU to improve EU-Cuba relations. Many believe Spain is in the best position to attempt to normalize relations with Cuba due to a shared culture and language as well as its own authoritarian past. Following the release of fourteen of the seventy-five dissidents, Spain successfully urged the EU to suspend its sanctions, and restore "formal contact" with Havana, according to Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque. Despite heavy criticism from other EU members, in April 2007, Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, visited Cuba in the first trip by a Spanish foreign minister since 1998. This was the first visit by an EU member since the sanctions were imposed, and reflected Spain's desire to have a real dialogue with the island. Several EU members, including Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Portugal, backed Spain's decision to renew ties with Cuba. However, others, most notably the Czech Republic, remained adamantly opposed to the visit, calling Spain's decision "unilateral" and remarked that the meeting was "unlikely to produce anything new."

The Opposition

It is not surprising that Cuba's toughest EU critics come mainly from Eastern European countries, some of which have painful memories of Soviet-era repression. The Czech Republic's harsh handling by the former Soviet Union during the Prague Spring of 1968 has made it the leader of the anti-Cuban bloc within the European Union due to Cuba's staunch support of Moscow at that time. With support also from the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden, Cuba's opposition refused to budge on its stance in favor of the sanctions until Havana demonstrated real strides toward democracy, including an improved human rights policy and less repression of dissident groups.

Cuban dissidents also vehemently opposed the lifting of the sanctions, believing that this action would "punish" the Cuban people and allow Havana to continue violating human rights. According to the leaders of the dissident group Agenda for Transition, any action taken by the EU to normalize relations with Cuba would be understood by Cuban authorities as affording legitimacy to the government's recent actions and would "[punish] those who fight for democracy."

The Turning Point: Raúl and Reforms

The EU decision to lift the sanctions was ultimately achieved as a result of Cuba's subsequent reforms. On February 24, 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down as president of Cuba on health grounds, after nearly five decades of rule. His vice president and younger brother, Raúl, was officially elected to take his place, after having been acting president since July 2006. In his acceptance speech, Raúl promised social and economic reforms meant to ease the burden on the everyday lives of Cubans. Many believed that any concessions made to Cuba under Raúl should be limited, but on March 4, Raúl signed two UN human rights pacts, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in what EUBusiness called an "unprecedented gesture." The EU received this as a "positive development," which could signal the beginning of more democratic reforms in Cuba. On March 9, EU aid Commissioner Louis Michel remarked that "the time is right for the European Union to begin a dialogue with Cuba towards normalizing ties and removing sanctions…"

The willingness and flexibility Raúl has shown in carrying out reforms demonstrates Cuba's potential to become a more open society, both socially and economically. These efforts have provided the impetus for the EU's decision to reverse its policy of sanctions. In stark contrast to his doctrinaire brother Fidel, Raúl has demonstrated a more pragmatic approach to governance, proving himself to be flexible and open to constructive engagement. In April, Raúl carried out reforms that would decentralize Cuba's agricultural sector by allowing farmers to increase their earnings, and provide more flexibility to purchase seeds and machinery. The Cuban newspaper Granma announced that these reforms could be a "springboard for more changes." In May, greater access to information was achieved when the government lifted the ban on personal computers and mobile phones, in addition to the use of rental cars and tourist hotels. In June, the government announced plans to abandon salary equality, a measure meant to increase worker productivity. In addition to these reforms, Raúl has demonstrated a commitment to human rights by commuting thirty death sentences, as well as releasing a number of political prisoners.

A Fresh Start

The decision to restore relations with Cuba, handed down by the EU on June 20, comes with a caveat: it will be reviewed at the end of one year, at which time Cuba must meet several criteria in the fields of human rights and democratization. This decision went some way in placating the nations that opposed the EU's measure, but the reassessment does not provide for a renewal of sanctions. The EU is facing criticism from Cuban dissidents for not laying down conditions on Cuba before lifting the sanctions. Though it is criticized, this move is viewed by the EU majority as a positive step forward for EU-Cuba relations. It also envisages a dialogue between the two entities that is neither conditioned nor restricted.

For Cuba, this EU attitude could lead to more reforms in the fields of democracy and human rights. As the agricultural overhauls in April were deemed a starting point for further change in that sector, so too could these sanctions be seen as a launching pad for more democratic reforms. The fact that the EU attached no conditions to its revoking of sanctions demonstrates that Europe is ready to deal with Cuba in a more dignified manner and means to encourage it to carry out further democratic advancement. The EU's decision is also a positive step for Cuba's economy. While the sanctions on Cuba were not economic in nature, trade between the two blocs fell in 2003 and 2004 while they remained in place, according to the European Commission's 2006 report on EU-Cuba bilateral trade. About 36% of Cuba's imports and 31.3% of its exports in 2006 were from the EU, making it the island's number one trading partner. European investment in Cuba could increase further now that the sanctions have been fully removed. This, coupled with more openness and additional reforms on Cuban society, are likely to lead to an improvement in the quality of life of the average Cuban.

Removing the sanctions also serves as a contrast between the EU and the U.S.'s policy when it comes to Cuba. According to Diego López Garrido, Spain's Secretary of State to the EU, the decision markedly contradicts the U.S.'s policy of isolation of the island, Europe's action shows that the EU is "capable of…choosing its own foreign policy path." The U.S. was unable to convince the EU to refuse to lift anti-Havana sanctions, exhibiting its independence from Washington's influence. On June 26, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey publicly worried that the EU's decision would give "additional legitimacy" to the Cuban regime. However, the latter's approach to Cuba has always been on the side of being less severe than that of the U.S., whose crippling economic sanctions have been responsible for endemic food and fuel shortages and bitterness among Cubans. If normalized relations between the EU and Cuba lead to more openness and democracy in Cuba, then perhaps the U.S. might want to reconsider its damaging and chronically ineffective policy toward the island.

Amy Coonradt is a Research Associate of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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