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A few steps behind | Damas de Blanco
Ladies in White

A few steps behind.

Jakub Klepal

When adopted in 1996, the EU’s Common Position towards Cuba sought to
encourage transition to democracy and respect for , 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 patternthat seems to
repeatedly emerge in EU-Cuba relations: an offer of cooperation
from the EU is followed by a particularly visible act of
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 repare
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 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 sphere.
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 date1. 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
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
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
of the EU Common Position.”3 In 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
against some EU member states and EU accession 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
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 had renewed
contacts with all EU countries. On 31 January 2005, the Council
temporarily suspended the 5 June 2003 measures.

Violent 2005

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.”4 The measures of 5 June 2003
remained suspended and the date of the next evaluation of the Common
Position was set for June 2006.
Despite the EU‘s willingness to enter into dialogue, the position of the
Cuban government remains confrontational and the repression in Cuba is
deteriorating. In October 2005, labeled the EU nations
“hypocrites“ and in the service of the United States, after the European
Parliament granted , 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 have
been 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)5. These acts, aimed mostly at dissidents‘ homes and families,
consist of psychological as well as assaults on property. They
are both under international law and under the Cuban
constitution. 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.

The Different Roles of the Commission and Parliament

The key actor in designing, reviewing and changing EU policy and the
Common Position on Cuba is, as has been already described, the Council
of the . Nonetheless, another two EU institutions play
a role in 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 had 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 funding is made public, the EC is criticized for its methods of funding
being inadequate for democracy promotion and the needs of independent
civil society in Cuba. It is estimated
that the EC has channeled around 150 million Euro to Cuba since the 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 its political prisoners and to reestablish the moratorium on
the death penalty. It also appealed to the Cuban authorities to permit
Oswaldo Paya to 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 its respect for fundamental
freedoms and it condemned the worsening
repression, the increase in the number of political prisoners and the
travel ban on the Damas de Blanco.

Losing leverage

During the 1990’s, 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 its
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 % and the major
importer to Cuba was Spain with almost 15 % (slightly ahead of Venezuela
and the US)6. In recent years, however, Cuba has benefited
from the economic support of Venezuela‘s President Hugo Chavez,
primarily oil supplies, in return for which Cuba has sent its doctors,
nurses, and teachers to Venezuela. 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 is clear from this brief overview of 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. These measures are in turn slowly
abandoned by the EU without really receiving 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,
the respect for human rights and an open market that brings
benefits to wide sectors of the population.
There has been no improvement made towards meeting the aims set in the
Common Position and, moreover, the EU is losing its economic
attractivity and incentives for Cuba. It would be logical for Brussels
to employ consequent and unanimous diplomacy, to show its discontent
with the Cuban regime, to strengthen its support for the peaceful
internal opposition, and to further its assistance in preparations
for a peaceful transition to democracy. It still has several options to
do so.

Jakub Klepal is an analyst for the Association for International
Affairs, a Czech non-governmental organization that conducts research in
the fields of international affairs, foreign policy and security studies.

1 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.
2 96/697/CFSP: Common Position of 2 December 1996 defined by the Council
on the basis of Article J.2 of the Treaty on European Union, on Cuba,
3 Declaration by the Presidency, 5 June 2003
4 GAERC, 13 June 2005,
5 Working Visit to Cuba, Pax Cristi, January 2006
6 The World Factbook, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/


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