By Andrew Rettman | EUOBSERVER
Spain is trying to forge a new rapport with the Cuban government amid speculation that Fidel Castro’s bad health could accelerate regime change in the Caribbean dictatorship. But other EU states want to step up pro-democracy work with the island’s opposition groups instead.
“It’s unthinkable that Spain cannot defend and develop an intense and constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities,” Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said during a rare visit by an EU minister to the island this Monday (2 April), Reuters reports. “We also want a relationship between the European Union and Cuba.”
“We are making progress on establishing a permanent and formal mechanism for political dialogue, which doesn’t exclude the subject of international cooperation to promote human rights,” Cuban foreign minister Perez Roque replied, adding that “Spain…is, today, within the European Union, a privileged negotiator.”
The Spanish move comes in the context of poor relations between Brussels and Havana. Under Spanish pressure, the EU in 2005 suspended diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, but Havana today receives less than u2;0AC1 million a year in poverty relief aid and just u2;0AC330,000 a year for cultural projects involving officially approved NGOs.
The status quo is based on an EU policy paper dating back to 1996 which says that “the objective of the EU in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights” but despite its tough wording the old EU model has done little to strengthen pro-democracy opposition groups.
The German EU presidency in February drafted a new policy paper on Cuba, sparking a discussion among EU diplomats at a 29 March meeting in Brussels. Strategic parts of the text are to remain secret but the document is also designed to give rise to a public EU political declaration on Cuba in June.
“The new document says little that hasn’t been said by the EU before. The wording is very carefully balanced so as not to offend the sensibilities of the [EU] delegations, in terms of what we are trying to achieve,” an EU official said.
But Spain, supported by Greece and Cyprus, wants Berlin to shelve the new EU paper despite its softly-softly approach. Madrid says any EU policy shift in mid-2007 could damage prospects of a “new era” in Cuba-EU relations, with the opening created by the fragile health of 80-year old leader Fidel Castro and upcoming elections in March 2008.
Spain was a colonial power in Cuba until 1898. It accounts for almost half the EU’s u2;0AC2 billion a year bilateral trade with the island, while Spanish firms, such as Repsol YPF, are currently bidding for access to new oil reserves of up to 5 billion barrels found in Cuban waters last year.
New impetus wanted
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