CubaBrief: The failure of the European Union’s engagement with the Castro regime and its wider meaning for Europe

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The European Union (EU) and the Castro regime elevated whataboutism to the level of international agreements. The European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union’s diplomatic service’s press release on the EU – Cuba human rights dialogue that was held on October 3, 2019 requires a suspension of disbelief to read it. The second sentence in the first paragraph states, “the dialogue provides a structured framework to discuss openly and in a constructive way the human rights situation in both Cuba and the EU and a platform to explore cooperation in multilateral fora on shared human rights challenges.”

The EEAS press release also claimed that it “was preceded by a civil society seminar on 2 October, where representatives of Cuban and European civil society exchanged views in particular on the topics of combatting gender-based violence and on the protection of families.”

This claim of the EEAS was contradicted by the Sweden based Civil Rights Defenders, a respected human rights organization that was founded in 1982 that over social media on October 2, 2019 reported: “Right now, a human rights dialogue between EU and Cuba is taking place in Brussels. All attending are approved by the Cuban gov, no independent civil society organisations present. Manuel Cuesta Morúa is going to Brussels despite not being invited.”

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Rosa María Payá in an open letter published by Civil Rights Defenders warned that “the position of the EEAS, combined with the fact that European governments abandoned their previous position, the EU Common Position on Cuba [brought into force] in 1996, that condemned human rights violations, demanded democratic reforms in Cuba and kept their embassies on the island open to opposition activists and members of independent civil society, but that [today’s position] is used by the Cuban government to try to legitimize its actions.”

Cuban dissident Cuesta Morua in a video posted by Civil Rights Defenders states that “since 2016 when the deal was signed between the European Union and Cuba the human rights situation has worsened.” Interviewed in the Swedish publication, Aftonbladet, Manuel Cuesta Morúa explained that “this is the chance to demand democratic reforms, but it isn’t being taken.” The Cuban dissident also explained that Sweden will be missing an opportunity to demand democracy in Cuba, if the EU-Cuba deal is approved.

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Shared challenges work when values are shared, in this case democratic ones. This is not the case with the dictatorship in Cuba and the democratic community of nations of the European Union.

The European projectis in crisis, and it is reflected today in its foreign policy and the values that it promotes that are in contradictionwith those enunciated with its founding. The European Union’sfundamental valuesare supposedto be “respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.” Reinterpreting the communist dictatorship in Cuba as a “one party” democracy is a betrayal of those values.

Yesterday, the EEAS press release explained that “both parties explored opportunities for closer EU-Cuba cooperation in multilateral human rights fora, such as at the Human Rights Council and the United National General Assembly Third Committee.” This ignores that the Cuban government has played an active and negative role in these fora over the years. Here are but a few highlights from the past 15 years at the UN Human Rights Council:

  • On April 15, 2004, when the UN Human Rights Commission decided by a single vote to censure Cuba for its human rights record, a Cuban human rights defender attending the session, Frank Calzon, was physically attacked by a Cuban diplomat.

  • On March 28, 2008, the Castro regime’s delegation, together with the Organization of Islamic Congress, successfully passed resolutions that turned the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression into an investigator into “abuses” of freedom of expression.

  • On February 2, 2009, during the Universal Periodic Review of China, Cuban ambassador Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios recommended that China repress human rights defenders with more firmness.

  • On May 28, 2009 amidst a human rights crisis in Sri Lanka the Cuban government’s diplomats took the lead and successfully blocked efforts to amend a text to pressure Sri Lanka to improve humanitarian access to its camps.

  • On March 17, 2014, at the UN Human Rights Council, Cuban diplomats defended the North Korean regime’s human rights record, and also negotiated with the European Union to guarantee that the North Korean dictator “would be off limits” before the International Criminal Court.

  • On September 21, 2018, Cuban ambassador to the UN Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, during the Universal Periodic Review on Cuba at the UN Human Rights Council, stated that “our country will not accept monitors. Amnesty International will not enter Cuba and we do not need their advice.”

  • On October 16, 2018, Cuban diplomats led an “act of repudiation” at the UN to prevent a discussion on political prisoners in Cuba.

Cooperating with outlaw regimes in a multilateral forum such as the UN Human Rights Council or the Third Committee is to undermine those forums and institutions. It also demonstrates that democracy promotion is no longer a top concern. This has led to the question raised in some important quarters of whether or not “democracy support” is a core concern that defines EU geostrategic interests? It was once and could be again, but it is an open question today.

The European project over the past sixty one years beginning with the European Economic Community in 1958 and the formal naming of the European Union in 1993 with the Treaty of Maastricht was a project of economic and political integration between democratic nations. For much of that time it also served as a politically and economically united front against the neighboring Soviet Union. The objectives of a common foreign and security policy were articulated in the Treaty of Maastricht and finally fleshed out in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

With respect to Cuba, as mentioned earlier, the European Union established a Common Position in 1996 that was consonant with fundamental EU values:

“The objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba 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. A transition would most likely be peaceful if the present regime were itself to initiate or permit such a process. It is not European Union policy to try to bring about change by coercive measures with the effect of increasing the economic hardship of the Cuban people. The European Union considers that full cooperation with Cuba will depend upon improvements in human rights and political freedom”

This Common Position on Cuba was ended on December 12, 2016 when the European Union claimed to “open a new chapter” in relations with the Cuban dictatorship that dropped human rights as a condition for normalization. Under the pretext of “normal relations” Cuban dissidents and independent civil society are no longer welcome at events at their embassies, as they were under the old policy. Incidentally in the rest of Latin America the European embassies invite dissidents, members of the political opposition to their events. The Cuban government in Washington DC invites opponents of the US government to their embassy functions.

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Under the old Common Position the European Union and its member states defended human rights and human dignity in Cuba creating spaces at their embassies where members of the opposition could engage regime officials, and the European Union recognized the efforts of Cuban democrats, awarding the Sakharov Prize to Oswaldo Payá in 2002 and the Ladies in White in 2005 while campaigning for the release of Cuban prisoners of conscience.

Under the old policy the Castro regime in Cuba could boycott government officials participating in European events where dissidents attended, and now with the new policy the Cuban government is boycotting both independent Cuban and European civil society organizations from participating in human rights dialogues and civil society seminars both in Cuba and in Europe. Things have gone in the wrong direction, and not only on Cuba.

In 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a high ranking center right politician, was not honoring one of the founders of the European project, individuals such as Adenaur, Churchill, and Mitterand, but was in Trier to honor Karl Marx, and celebrate the unveiling of a statue of the communist philosopher paid for by the communist regime in China.

There is a crisis in Europe, and it is both a crisis of values and actions. The European Union in honoring Karl Marx and his communist philosophy ignores the wisdom of one of the pioneers of the EU, Winston Churchill who in 1937 explained:

‘There are two strange facts about these non-God religions. The first is their extraordinary resemblance to one another. Nazism and Communism imagine themselves as exact opposites. They are at each other’s throats wherever they exist all over the world. They actually breed each other; for the reaction against Communism is Nazism, and beneath Nazism or Fascism Communism stirs convulsively. Yet they are similar in all essentials.”

The European Union needs to return to the ideas of the founding generation of the European project, and defending human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law in both word and deed. Rosa María Payá, (daughter of the 2002 Sakharov Laureate) and promoters of the initiative Cuba Decide are calling on the European Union to once again do the right thing in Cuba:

“…Cooperate with the independent Cuban press and civil society as in any other country; that is, invite members of civil society to formal discussions on the implementation of the Agreement, contribute to the financing of civil society organizations, invite independent journalists to press conferences, and publicly denounce politically motivated human rights violations. The EEAS must also make it clear that there will be no financial contributions for Cuban official organizations or state agencies as long as the Cuban government does not publicly support [democratic reforms].”

Mohandas Gandhi observed that “happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” and it is time for the members of the European Union to embrace the values they claim, speak for them and act on them. Changing course on Cuba would be a good first step to turning the tide on this European crisis.