Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Europe takes the lead on Cuba

The EU's decision to end sanctions against Cuba sends
a clear signal – still ignored by the US – that reform there must be nurtured
On June 19, the EU voted to lift its 2003 diplomatic sanctions against Cuba despite the opposition of countries such as Sweden and the Czech Republic who believe that Raúl Castro has not implemented sufficient reforms to warrant it.

Britain, which has traditionally felt the same way, this time joined with Spain and Belgium in supporting the move. According to reports this was not so much a change of heart by the Brown government, but a price it paid for the support of Labour leftwingers in the desperate 42-day detention debate.

Nonetheless, the change in Britain's position is widely understood to have been the decisive factor in persuading the remaining naysayers to drop their opposition.

The sanctions limited the ability of high-level government officials to visit Cuba and participate in cultural events and established official relations with Cuban dissidents. A Cuban counter-measure froze the receipt of all cultural and educational aid from the EU and those countries within it that supported the sanctions.

For academics therefore, the move should allow us once again to obtain and use government grants for research in Cuba.

The decision, spearheaded by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, Louis Michel, an EU commissioner, aims to encourage liberalisation in Cuba through a dialogue that is "unconditional, reciprocal, non-discriminatory and results-oriented … in the context of the recent changes initiated by President Raúl Castro." It calls upon the Cuban authorities to protect human rights and release political prisoners. In a year, the EU will review progress and, if this measure proves ineffective, they can reconsider the decision.

However, the measure has drawn criticism from Cuban dissidents and put the EU at odds with Washington. Tom Casey, a spokesman at the US state department, argued that Raúl Castro's reforms were "purely cosmetic" and that lifting the sanctions before the release of political prisoners "will legitimize" the new Castro regime. Cuban dissidents such as economist Oscar Espinosa say that the EU's decision is a signal to the Cubans that "it pays to be intransigent".

It is clear of course that Cuba is far from being a liberal democracy, but to suggest the Raúl Castro government reforms are without consequence is difficult to defend. Opposition groups, though closely watched, are tolerated, prisoners are being freed, same sex marriages are being legalised, Cubans living in social housing have received titles to their homes, the salary cap has been eliminated, agriculture has been decentralised and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land are being distributed to private farmers.

In addition, 30 death sentences have been commuted, and capital punishment has been suspended with a view to abolishing it in the long term. Cubans are now allowed to own computers, mobile phones and other consumables and they are also free to stay in tourist hotels. There is talk of cars being put on sale and a market in housing being established. Taken together, these changes do amount to more than something cosmetic.

The EU sanctions were imposed in an attempt to pressure the Cuban government to reform. However, they were utterly ineffective. Not even the US economic embargo, which has severely hurt the Cuban economy, has been able to coerce political change in Cuba.

Sanctions have only undermined the quality of life of the average Cuban. They have also allowed other countries, less concerned with preaching politics to Havana, to enter a growing economy. China, Venezuela, India, Iran, Brazil, Vietnam and Russia are filling a void left by the US and EU. It has become clear to all but the most bone-headed in Washington that the sanctions approach has failed and will continue to do so.

By lifting the sanctions, the EU is opening the path to dialogue and increasing its economic stake in Cuba and thereby its ability to exercise leverage on Havana. In this way it hopes to be able to induce the government of Raúl Castro to reform the island's political system. Meanwhile, the US, under George Bush, stubbornly clings to the idea that it can force some kind of "regime change" there. By taking this step, Europe has distanced itself from that position. It has also fallen into line with the views of countries in the region, including the US's closest neighbours: Canada, all the Caribbean nations and Mexico, who engage with Cuba and oppose sanctions.

It could be said that the EU's move is meaningless because the sanctions were not being enforced. But by officially eliminating them, the EU has made a gesture of good will that is a fillip to those in the US who would like to see their own government adopt a similar approach. Barack Obama has signalled quite clearly that he favours dialogue over confrontation. The question is whether he and those who agree with him can prevail.

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