2006-05-01 / Jakub Klepal
The EU’s Common Policy towards Cuba: Always a Few Steps Behind
« back When adopted in 1996, the EU’s Common Position towards Cuba sought to encourage transition to democracy and respect for human rights, using "constructive, result-oriented political dialogue" and cooperation with all sectors of Cuban society. Unfortunately, ten years later, Cuba continues to violate basic human rights, has stepped up aggresion against its civic society and rolled back some of the modest reforms of the 90s. This paper, therefore, reviews a pattern that seems to repeatedly emerge in EU-Cuba relations: an offer of cooperation from the EU is followed by a particularly visible act of repression committed by the Cuban authorities against the opposition, to which the EU reacts by hardening its stance.
The Birth of the Position
The EEC established relations with Cuba in September 1988. It hoped to speed up the internal transition process by strengthening relations and by binding Cuba into the international community. The EU began to prepare the negotiations for a trade and economic cooperation agreement with Cuba.
When the Cuban airforce shot down two civilian aircraft of the Miami-based NGO Brothers to the Rescue in February 1996, the EU postponed the dialogue on the cooperation agreement and stated that it would be renewed only on condition of progress in the political situation. On 2 December 1996, the Council in Brussels adopted the Common Position on Cuba (96/697/CFSP) by which EU-Cuba relations are guided to this date.  The declared objective of the EU, as stated in the Common Position, is “to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.”
According to the Common Position “a transition is most likely to be peaceful if the present regime were itself to initiate or permit such a process”. The EU pledges to facilitate peaceful change in Cuba and promote the respect for human rights by intensifying the dialogue with the government and “all sectors of Cuban society”; by reminding the Cuban authorities of their responsibilities regarding human rights; by encouraging reforms of legislation; and by evaluating developments in Cuban internal and foreign policies in accordance with the standards applied to other countries; to provide ad hoc humanitarian aid; to carry out “focused economic cooperation actions in support of the economic opening being implemented" and to lend its cooperation if the Cuban authorities progress towards democracy. The implementation of the Common Position is monitored by the Council.
Since its adoption in December 1996, the Common Position has been regularly reviewed every six months and is currently being reviewed every year. The Cuban government rejects the Common Position as interference in its internal affairs.
Détente 1998 - 2003
During the second half of the 1990’s, there were no substantive changes in the political and economic situation in Cuba and the Common Position was repeatedly reconfirmed. In 1998, mutual relations improved after the visit of Pope John Paul II and the release of a number of political prisoners. However, the increased dialogue did not lead to the release of four members of the Internal Dissidence Working Group, as requested by the EU. The EU criticized unfair trials in Cuba (March 1999) and called on the authorities in Cuba to introduce a moratorium on executions (June 1999). In 2000, Cuba suspended its application for the EU cooperation agreement in reaction to the resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission. The resolution, elaborated by the Czech Republic and Poland, was backed by all EU member states present in the commission. On the other hand, all EU member states regularly vote against the US embargo in the annual UN General Assembly.
Between 2001 and 2002, EU-Cuba relations improved - the Council noted signs of improvement in living standards for the population (June 2001), Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, holding the rotating presidency of the EU, visited Cuba (August 2001), and the European Commission and the ACP countries made their support for Cuba’s incorporation into the Cotonou Agreement clear. The political dialogue was resumed and in January 2003, Cuba applied for accession to the Cotonou agreement. In March 2003, the EU's Delegation was inaugurated in Havana.
Response to Black Spring
An abrupt deterioration in EU-Cuba relations came following the arrests of 75 Cuban dissidents, including representatives of Varela Project, in March and April 2003, and the executions of three men for an attempted escape to Florida on a hijacked ferry. In May, the European Commission suspended the process of Cuba’s accession to the Cotonou agreement.
On 5 June, the EU, on Spain's initiative, decided to take following measures: “to limit the bilateral high-level government visits; reduce the profile of member states’ participation in cultural events; invite Cuban dissidents at national days' celebrations and proceed to the re-evaluation of the EU Common Position”. As a response, the Cuban government took back for the second time its application to the Cotonou Agreement, called off the political dialogue scheduled for December 2003, refused direct aid coming from the EU, and launched a propaganda campaign against some EU Member States and EU acceding countries. In April and May 2004, a group of 16 human rights activists and journalists were arrested and the Cuban government imposed new restrictions on private enterprises. In June 2004, GAERC reaffirmed the measures of 5 June 2003.
Following a change in the Spanish government (José Maria Aznar's conservative government was replaced by the socialists of José Louis Rodríguez Zapatero), Madrid changed its position and started to advocate the suspension of EU diplomatic sanctions. During the second half of 2004, Cuban authorities released some of the 75 political prisoners imprisoned in March 2003, and in November Cuba reopened diplomatic contacts with Spain. By the end of January 2005, the Cuban government renewed diplomatic contacts with all EU countries. On 31 January 2005, the Council temporarily suspended the 5 June 2003 measures.
To this date Cuba remains the only country in the region without an EU cooperation agreement. After the Cuban authorities expelled several European politicians and journalists planning to attend the Asamblea para Promover la Sociedad Civil (Assembly to Promote Civil Society) in May 2005 in Havana, the Council of the EU “categorically condemned Cuba's unacceptable attitude towards foreign parliamentarians and journalists” but reaffirmed the Common Position and “reiterated its willingness to maintain a constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities.”  The measures of 5 June 2003 remained suspended and the date for next evaluation of the Common Position was set for June 2006.
Despite the EU's willingness to enter dialogue, the position of the Cuban government remains confrontational and the repression in Cuba is deteriorating. In October 2005, Fidel Castro labeled EU nations as "hypocrites", and in the services of the United States, after the European Parliament granted Damas de Blanco, a group of wives, mothers and sisters of jailed Cuban dissidents, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Only fourteen of the 75 activists arrested in March 2003 were conditionally released. The number of prisoners of conscience has grown by 40 in the second half of 2005. Prisoners’ families are subject to persecution and an increasing number of acts of repudiation (actos de repudio). These acts, aiming mostly at dissidents' homes and families, consist of psychological torture, as well as assaults on property. They are illegal both under international law and under the constitution of Cuba. Given their rather dispersed character, they – unlike visible big events such as mass arrests in March 2003 - have so far not attracted the level of attention from the international community that would have been appropriate.
Different role of Commission and Parliament
The key actor in designing, reviewing, and changing the EU policy and Common Position on Cuba is, as has already been described, the Council of the European Union. Nonetheless, other two EU institutions play a role in the EU policy towards Cuba – the European Commission implements some of the components of the policy (e.g. it administers development aid), and may submit proposals while the European Parliament has a consultative role.
Since March 2003, the European Commission has a delegation in Havana (under the responsibility of the delegation in the Dominican Republic). As the Cuban government in 2003 rejected all direct bilateral cooperation, the European Commission is channeling aid funds to Cuba by co-financing European NGOs. Since the EC rules make it complicated to channel small amounts of money and as all the funding is made public, the EC is criticized that its methods of funding are inadequate for the democracy promotion and the needs of independent civil society in Cuba. It is estimated, that EC has channeled around 150 millions euro to Cuba since mid 90s.
The European Parliament has repeatedly criticized the human rights situation on the island. In April 2004 the EP appealed to the Cuban government to release the political prisoners and to reestablish the moratorium on the death penalty. It also appealed on the Cuban authorities to enable Oswaldo Paya to travel in order to receive the Sakharov Prize. On February 2, 2006, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the EU's policy towards the Cuban Government. It regretted the unresponsiveness of the Cuban authorities towards the EU's calls for respect for fundamental freedoms, it condemned the worsening repression, increase in the number of political prisoners, and the travel ban on the Damas de Blanco.
During 1990’s, the economic relations became the key component of Cuba's relationship with the EU. The bilateral economic exchange with, in particular, Spain, France, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, has intensified. As Cuba was struggling to overcome the economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet bloc during the 1990s, the EU became its most important partner. In 2004, the major export market for Cuba was the Netherlands with nearly 23%, the major importer to Cuba was Spain with almost 15% (slightly ahead of Venezuela and the US). In recent years, however, Cuba benefits from economic support of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, primarily through oil supplies, in return for which Cuba sends to Venezuela its doctors, nurses, and teachers. China also has a growing economic presence on the island, particularly in the mining sector. These new economic relationships diminish the importance of economic cooperation with the EU and could gradually lead to the EU's loss of leverage.
Always a few steps behind
As has been clear from the brief overview of the EU policy towards Cuba, there is a repetitive pattern in the mutual relations: a rapprochement including increased dialogue and the opening of the possibility of a cooperation agreement has in the past been followed by a particularly visible act of repression committed by the Cuban authorities against the opposition (the shooting down of exile opposition airplanes in 1996; mass arrests in 2003), to which the EU reacted by freezing the dialogue and introducing limited punitive measures. Theese measure EU in turn slowly abandons without really getting anything in exchange. In this pattern, the EU has accepted Castro's lead in the mutual relations, and limited itself to reacting to his steps. Given that neither the economic nor the human rights situation on the island has improved significantly since the beginning of the 1990s, this reactive policy seems to be rather ineffective.
The EU is one of the main global agenda setters in promoting democracy, respect for human rights and open market economy that brings benefits to wide sectors of population. There has been no improvement towards the aims set in the Common Position and moreover EU looses its economic attractivity and incentives for Cuba. It would be logical for Brussels to employ consequent and unanimous diplomacy, show its discontent with the Cuban regime, strengthen its support for peaceful internal opposition, and to further its assistance in preparations for a peaceful transition to democracy. It still has several options to do so.
 Common positions are one of the main legal instruments of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) (Articles 13, 14 and 15 of the Treaty on European Union). Common positions define the approach of the Union to a particular matter of general interest of a geographic or thematic nature. Member States must ensure that their national policies conform to the common positions.
Working Visit to Cuba, Pax Cristi, January 2006