The past few months have seen a sharp escalation of tension in relations between Cuba and the US. But unlike in the past, this time the EU has jumped firmly on to the anti-Havana bandwagon. While the situation has yet to reach crisis point, it is certainly serious. In the House of Lords debate on Cuba last week, the British government was uncompromising in its attitude.
The question is how best to integrate Cuba, the only socialist state in the Americas, into the western hemisphere. Should it be through isolation and coercion, or through dialogue and mutually agreed incentives? In May, I led a British trade delegation to Havana, as someone who believes that constructive engagement and expanded trade are the best ways to encourage change and to bolster civil society.
Earlier that month, Cuba arrested more than 70 opposition activists. This brought long prison sentences for most and the execution of three ferry hijackers. The severity of the government’s crack-down, and the human rights issues it raised, provoked widespread international condemnation, risking repercussions from the outside world, not least from its mighty neighbour.
That new low point in US-Cuba relations has been mirrored on this side of the Atlantic, with the EU downgrading diplomatic contacts and postponing Cuba’s application to join the Cotonou convention, the treaty on trade and aid between Europe and 77 developing nations.
Britain has been at the forefront of orchestrating this new EU approach. The reaction of many in government has been predictable - a default to the tendency to shadow America’s unreasonable lead and to turn this country’s back on dialogue.
While the present situation is a serious setback, I believe there is an alternative. Engagement and dialogue wherever possible has always been the British approach to achieving foreign affairs goals and encouraging improved standards, or else we would not have diplomatic missions in North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, even China, to name but a few.
Tough messages are easier to send and more likely to be heeded within the context of a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation than one based on exclusion and distrust. For over four decades, the US embargo against Cuba has failed to deliver any of its goals. It is proof that isolation is not the road to reform. It is time for a radical new approach. Britain should be in the vanguard of encouraging dialogue with Cuba. Increased cooperation through business activity offers us the opportunity to encourage Cuba to take its relationship with UK and the EU more seriously.
There is a sense in many countries that the present Cuban government is in its twilight years and it is only a matter of biding time. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic need to rid themselves of the misguided notion that Cuba policy is locked in a holding pattern until Fidel Castro is no more, at which time the Cuban people will rise up as one and embrace American culture and influence. It is naive in the extreme to think that in the post-Castro era, Cuba will effectively become the 51st state of the US. Yet that is precisely what many in the US administration and indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, appear to believe.
In fact, the very opposite is likely to happen. Cuban history is marked by a strong and deep-rooted desire for independence, and in the post-Castro era, resistance to US influence and the drug and money-laundering culture which has infected so many Latin and Caribbean nations, is likely to strengthen. Ultimately, it will be the Cuban people who determine its future and British, European and US policy must be formulated in view of this reality.
It would be of great benefit to the British-Cuban relationship if policymakers in London now spent time studying the Cuban psyche, rather than viewing the situation through the unfocused binoculars of American wishful thinking - as unquestionably some in the government are inclined to do. We must avoid the danger of borrowing the blunt instrument of America’s political sledgehammer to drive home our message, when the skilful use of subtler means would cause far less damage and achieve far better results.
This is a critical time for Cuba. A knee-jerk tendency to shadow US policy threatens to seal up the window of opportunity, just at the very time when Cuba is beginning to recognise the need for further economic reform and a stable political transition to a younger leadership.
The Guardian, July 1, 2003