The EU’s “Fresh Start” Approach

While debating the merits of opening relations with Cuba on a local blog, I dug up an article by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs from last July which was gushingly optimistic about the European Union’s lifting of sanctions against Cuba being a sort of “turning point” for Cuba.

Well, time is usually a good arbiter, so let’s take a closer look at the article and what the results have been 9 months later:

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 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.

Never mind the fact that the changes highlighted in the report mean very little when seen in the light of the overall oppression the Cuban regime continues to impose on its citizens. I guess the EU didn’t need much to lift those sanctions, eh? A kinder, gentler, more pragmatic raul was all it took. Hmmm. Really? Kind of ironic when you look at it now, because as the recent turnover in the regime suggests, raul isn’t going to play warm and fuzzy with those he doesn’t totally agree with. So much for the “pragmatist” in raul. If the EU’s definition of success is measured by these steps, disregarding the fact that the majority of the Black Spring of 2003 political prisoners remain incarcerated, then I guess there not much hope for these people.

As speculation increases regarding President Obama’s expected easing of travel restrictions, a freshening of the debate vis-a-vis Cuba policy has led us toward familiar terrain. On one side we have the “50 years of current policy hasn’t worked…it’s time to try something new” folks.   On the other we have those of us who are staunch in our belief that no openings to the Cuban regime are to be offered until Cuba demonstrates significant and permanent steps in support of basic human rights and freedom for all political prisoners. For those in the former group, capitulating to the regime is the only alternative, despite the very good and righteous intentions most of these folks have. Doing the right thing is rarely easy and often excruciatingly tough, and bad people know and take advantage of this. How many times do we have to be shown that unilaterally opening the door to the Cuban regime does nothing but lead to more of the same?

Perhaps if the EU followed the lead of its Cuba-policy dissenters (led by the stalwart Czechs) instead of defaulting to Spain just because they speak the same language as Cubans, we would hear more of this fact-based opinion:

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.”

…instead of this wishful-thinking one:

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.