July 19, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Cold Shoulder

Last Thursday, the French embassy in Havana decided to invite Fidel Castro's communist cronies over to help celebrate France's Bastille Day - a day similar in significance and symbolism to our Fourth of July.

Shamefully, they expressly didn't invite any of Cuba's political dissidents: France's government had promised to turn a cold shoulder to democracy activists struggling to free themselves from their own (island) prison.

So much for liberte, egalite and fraternite . . .

But it's not just the French who have decided to play along with Cuba's horrendous human-rights practices; the European Union as a whole has caved to Cuba's caudillo, Fidel Castro.

Back in 1996, the EU adopted a "Common Position" on Cuba, with the avowed goal of promoting democracy, respect for human rights and improvement in the often-dismal living conditions for the Cuban people. But over the last 21/2 years, the EU has shifted to appeasing Castro on these issues.

It started in March 2003, when Fidel threw 75 nonviolent democracy dissidents into jail, meting out 6- to 28-year sentences in what has become known in Cuba as the "black spring."

The next month, the EU slapped Cuba with economic sanctions, lowered the level of diplomatic contact and put regime opponents on the A-list for embassy parties. In response, Havana suspended diplomatic relations with the EU.

The diplomatic chill lasted nearly 18 months. Then, last November, Havana threw a bone to the EU by releasing 14 of the 75 political prisoners for "humanitarian reasons."

That first hint of a Cuban concession was enough for Spain's socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - who convinced the EU to cave, ending sanctions for a six-month trial period. By January, the two sides had restored full diplomatic relations.

The EU also gave the dictator a huge gift: It agreed to stop inviting dissidents to national celebrations such as Bastille Day. The claim was that ending the practice would advance a "constructive dialogue" with the regime.

So how did Cuba express its support for a "constructive dialogue"?

In May, Cuban security services arrested and deported lawmakers and journalists from Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic who had traveled to Cuba to attend a large dissident rally in Havana.

The EU's response?

Shockingly, the EU's Council of Foreign Ministers agreed to extend the suspension of the sanctions until at least next June. That is, even as it admitted that Cuba's government had made "no satisfactory progress on human rights," the EU opted for more diplomatic happy talk.

The EU council also tried to extend the ban on dissidents at embassy functions, but Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic all objected strongly. The issue was ultimately left up to each country's discretion.

All this undermines EU's much-touted moral authority, making it look like an accomplice to Cuba's totalitarian regime. That's especially offensive to the many Europeans who lived for decades with the threat - or under the repressive yoke - of communist dictators.

Vaclav Havel - the Cold War dissident and post-Cold War Czech president - urged the EU to support Cuba's political opposition.

Havel wrote earlier this year that the EU must "defend its freedoms and values, and not abandon them" by aligning with dictators or forgetting "their experience with totalitarian regimes."

He's right - the human-rights situation in Cuba is grim. The island's 11 million people deserve better. An estimated 300-plus political prisoners now languish in Cuba's infamous rat-infested jails.

The U.S. State Department's 2004 Report of Human Rights Practices says Cuba is a "totalitarian state" that controls "all aspects of life through the Communist Party." Cuban citizens are denied freedom of speech, press, assembly and association.

Cuban security services closely monitor domestic and international journalists, restrict both Internet access and other distribution of foreign news and censor domestic media.

With El Presidente nearing 80 years of age, Cuba will soon enter a pivotal stage in its political future. It's time to start thinking about the post-Castro era.

One hundred and three years after independence, Cuba still isn't "free." Instead of struggling under the weight of colonialism, it is has been crippled by Castro's communist regime for 46 years.

The United States is already in touch with the island's political opposition. It makes sense for the EU to fully engage - and encourage - regime opponents, rather than pander to the failed Castro regime.

One day, a Cuban Vaclav Havel may be leading a new Cuba, where democracy, human rights and civil liberties are more than dreams.

But if the EU doesn't stop deferring to Spain's soft Cuba policy - and continues to placate Castro's cast-iron grip on the island - Cuba Libre may never become more than a slogan.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post