By Meghan Clyne | The New York
In the showdown between Old and New Europe over Cuba, Old Europe has won - and the communist dictator in Havana, Fidel Castro, has gotten a break for at least a year.
The European Union decided yesterday not to restore diplomatic sanctions it imposed on the island in 2003, affording Mr. Castro a year of “constructive dialogue” before next reconsidering whether to ban high-level diplomats’ visits to Cuba, open embassies in Havana to Cuban dissidents, and take other measures that have greatly irked Cuba’s strongman.
The decision was issued at yesterday’s External Relations Council meeting, a gathering of the foreign ministers of the 25 E.U. member states, in Luxembourg. It was the most recent development in a diplomatic saga that began in March 2003, when Mr. Castro rounded up and jailed 75 independent academics, journalists, and librarians, among other opponents, in what is known on the island as the “primavera negra,” or “black spring.”
In the aftermath of the crackdown, in June 2003, the E.U. responded with diplomatic sanctions on the island. Among other measures, the European Union suspended high-level diplomatic contact with Havana, and began inviting dissidents to celebrations of national holidays, where members of the opposition movement were afforded valuable access to representatives of the world’s second largest economic power.
The Europeans’ retaliation infuriated Mr. Castro, who promptly declared a “freeze” on his relations with the continent, posing difficulties for countries with economic interests on the island. That freeze thawed in January, when Spain - under the governing hand of the Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos - pushed the E.U. to lift the sanctions for a six-month trial period.
High-level diplomatic contact was reinstated, and dissidents were uninvited from the national holiday celebrations, with the hope that ending some of the E.U. practices bothersome to Mr. Castro would foment “constructive dialogue” with the regime in order to bring about reform.
Six months later, the E.U. has determined that even though “there was no satisfactory progress on human rights in Cuba,” it remains willing “to maintain a constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities, on a reciprocal and non-discriminatory basis ... with the aim of achieving tangible results with regard to human rights, democratization and the release of political prisoners.” The E.U.‘s diplomatic sanctions “remain suspended” until June 2006, when the union will next reconsider its common position.
The European Union arrived at the decision despite the fact that, last week, dissidents were urging it to reinstate the June 2003 sanctions. Several European lawmakers, too, urged a tougher line on the Castro regime in the wake of detentions of lawmakers and journalists from Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany during the May 20 meeting of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, the first major successful gathering of pro-democracy activists on the island in the 46 years of Castro’s reign.
The move disappointed some advocates of democracy on the island, including representatives of the Czech Republic, which has lobbied hard for tougher European measures on Mr. Castro.
E.U. policy on Cuba has been framed as a showdown between Old and New Europe, with Spain representing the former and the Czechs carrying the banner of the latter.
Spain, because of its historical and linguistic ties to Cuba, has long been deferred to by the European community on matters of Cuban policy. Scholars of Cuba have observed that because both the left and the right in Spain have historically had ideological affinities for Castro’s dictatorship, this usually resulted in lax policies, with the exception of the June 2003 sanctions under Prime Minister Aznar. Under the Socialist Zapatero government, Spain has moved toward a more accommodating posture. Its ambassador to Havana, Carlos Alonso Zaldivar, “was a militant in the Spanish communist party years ago,” the director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, Frank Calzon, said.
Since Spain first pushed to temporarily suspend the sanctions in January, it has been resisted fiercely by the Czechs, who represent a new element in European policy-making informed by years of suffering under Soviet brutality. The Czech Republic’s ambassador to America, Martin Palousy, said to The New York Sun, of Cuba: “Basically, we have a very similar experience in the past, and we believe that for a healthy state of transatlantic relations, the question of principled support for democratic fighters in countries that are still under totalitarian regimes is essential.”
To that end, the Czechs have been lobbying in recent weeks for a stricter line in Europe’s policy toward Havana’s strongman, including international speeches by a former Czech president and dissident, Vaclav Havel. To the Czechs, replacing Castro’s rule with democracy in Cuba “is a very important thing,” Mr. Palousy said. “We maybe can sound like idealists, but I believe that this is a very realistic defense of our nation’s interests as well.”
One of the organizers of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, Rene Gomez Manzano, agreed. Having E.U. nations open their embassies to dissidents, in particular, was “important not only for us, the opposition, but for those foreign representatives as well,” he said in Spanish.
By shutting the opposition movement out of embassies, Mr. Gomez said, European diplomats would be “deprived of our perception, our analysis - this fount of information” about the state of affairs in Cuba. “What other source do they have - the government of Castro?” he asked, adding that the solidarity of democracies across the Atlantic was very important to Cuba’s prodemocracy activists.
Representatives of Spain, however, maintained that they are committed to fostering democracy in Cuba but differ in the method of promoting it. The authority on Latin American policy at Spain’s embassy to America, Juan Jose Rodriguez Buitrago, said, in Spanish, that the measures adopted in June 2003 “are provoking conflict with the government of Cuba. They don’t help the dissident movement. They don’t help anybody.”
Mr. Buitrago said yesterday that he was pleased by the E.U. decision to prolong the suspension of the sanctions. Even though there had not been changes in Cuba’s human rights status in the six months of the reprieve, Mr. Buitrago said, he believed more “patience” would bring about results.
A spokesman for the Czech embassy in America, Petr Janousek, said, of yesterday’s consensus decision: “Obviously, we would’ve been happier if it didn’t happen this way, but such is life, and we have to live with it.” He said the Czechs remained committed to trying to improve conditions for Cuba’s dissidents.
In the meantime, that decision to engage in “constructive dialogue” puts the European philosophy of Cuba policy in contrast with America’s, which brooks no engagement with the communist dictator. A Cuban-American congressman who has lectured in recent weeks about Cuba’s transition to democracy, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican of Florida, called the European decision “appeasement.”
“I figured this would happen,” he said. “To say, ‘We confirm that there has not been satisfactory progress on human rights, but we have nonetheless decided that measures taken on 5 June 2003 will remain suspended’... It’s a sad, pathetic statement that obviously will give great encouragement to Castro to continue torturing in his dungeons,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said.
A state department official for Western Hemisphere affairs with expertise in Cuba said that the Europeans’ decision would not affect or undermine America’s policy of nonengagement with Mr. Castro, and said history proved that engagement resulted only in failure. “U.S. policy exists in the real world, with the cold, harsh fact of what Castro is and what he’s done and continues to do to that country and the people in it,” the official, who asked not to be named, said.
Mr. Calzon, however, found some reasons for optimism in the Europeans’ decision. Even though “it would be better if the European Union were to stand firm on the side of the Cuban people,” he said, the fact that the European Union had extended the wait-and-see period for another year meant that it would be keeping its attention on Mr. Castro. That constant review of the regime, Mr. Calzon said, would be “totally unacceptable” to the dictator.