On June 19, 2008, over dinner in Brussels, the European Union's
foreign ministers agreed to lift sanctions against Cuba. This
decision closes an uncharacteristically confrontational chapter in
EU-Cuban relations that began after the March 2003 Cuban crackdown
on dissent that resulted in the arrest of 75 pro-democracy
advocates, the cream of Cuba's nascent civil society. After a
series of summary trials, each activist was consigned to Fidel
Castro's tropical gulag for sentences of up to 28 years.
The EU, in a rare demonstration of displeasure with Cuba,
objected to this ruthless and unwarranted suppression of peaceful
dissent. While the response was far more symbolic than substantive,
the EU froze high level visits to Cuba, denied Cuban officials
participation in certain cultural activities and urged member
states to invite dissidents to cocktail receptions at their
embassies in Havana. However, trade, travel and investment between
the EU and Cuba were not disrupted.
The March 2003 Cuban crackdown also outraged the Bush
Administration, the U.S. Congress and the American people. In
response to Cuba's actions, the United States imposed tougher
restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba and created the
Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
Although it appeared the U.S. and its European allies shared
similar views regarding the repressive nature of Cuban communism,
the EU's decision to terminate its sanctions against Cuba
demonstrates otherwise. Despite the crumbling of European resolve,
the United States must maintain its principled stand, both in word
and deed, against the oppressive Cuban regime.
The EU Has Second Thoughts
The EU retreat began in 2005, when, without any appreciable
improvement of Cuban human rights, it nullified its 2003 actions
and suspended its modest sanctions. Nonetheless, the Castro regime
continued to bridle over the mere existence of "sanctions,"
denouncing them as "unjust interference" in Cuba's internal
Spain, under the leadership of Socialist Prime Minister
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Foreign Minister
Miguel Moratinos, adopted a particularly apologetic, anti-U.S.
stance towards Cuba, pressing the EU to remove the sanctions
altogether. In the prevailing view of Madrid, Cuba should be
treated no differently than Chile, Costa Rica or Peru; although
political prisoners remain in Cuban jails, senior Cuban officials
should feel welcomed at EU receptions.
Unfortunately for the dissidents languishing in Cuban dungeons,
Spain's attitude has proven infectious, resulting in the end of
sanctions. In place of these sanctions, the European Union states
it will pursue wide-ranging, if ill-defined, dialogue with
communist leaders. According to EU foreign ministers, the proposed
discussions will urge the release of political prisoners, seek
meetings with "representatives of civil society and the democratic
opposition" and recommend freedom of expression and access to the
Internet. This dialogue will, so the EU promises, be established on
a "reciprocal, unconditional, non-discriminatory and
results-oriented basis" and be reviewed in June 2009.
EU Rewards Cosmetic Changes
Since Raúl Castro assumed legal control on February 24,
2008, the Cuban government has slightly loosened some of its most
onerous restrictions on consumer goods. For instance, by
engineering a new cash-and-carry form of communism, Raúl's
regime allows Cubans with hard currency to purchase computers, cell
phones and DVDs. Citizens-if they possess the cash-are now able to
holiday at resort hotels in Cuba and have improved chances of
owning property. Without disclosing a master strategy, Cuban
officials say they want to concentrate on encouraging private
incentives in agriculture, where Cuba's production remains abysmal.
Other measures seek to create what Havana spin-masters are calling
a new "meritocracy" with incentives for productivity.
Despite the above-noted cosmetic changes, Raul's political views
remain in synch with Fidel's. The regime has demonstrated no
positive movement on human rights reform. Of the original 75
political prisoners detained during the 2003 crackdown,
approximately 55 remain incarcerated. And escape from imprisonment
carries a heavy price; most of those let out were removed for
medical reasons stemming primarily from inhumane treatment.
Even as the Cuban regime offers superficial reforms, government
suppression of genuine freedom continues. For instance, on April
21, 2008, a miniscule protest by a dozen wives and relatives of the
political prisoners, Las Damas de Blanco or Ladies in
White, ended in a police sweep and fierce denunciations of the
women by Cuban authorities as U.S "agents."
Additionally, Cuba's independent-minded blogger, Yoani Sanchez,
a voice of the new generation disillusioned with the restrictions
on life in contemporary Cuba, was denied an exit visa to travel to
Spain to receive the Ortega y Gasset Prize for Journalism. The
refusal was accompanied by a tirade from Fidel Castro against the
Spanish "neo-colonial" media and "metropolitan mentality" of
certain Europeans, that is, any critics of the regime.
Comfortable with Castro
The EU was never truly serious about defending human rights or
democracy in Cuba. A handful of members of the "New Europe"-the
Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in particular-valiantly stood
beside the Cuban people urging the EU to hold Cuba accountable for
violations of human rights. Sadly familiar with life under the boot
of Communism, these European nations offered both word and deed in
support of jailed dissents and the silenced Cuban majority.
Old Europe, however, proved it is comfortable with Cuba's aging,
communist dictatorship. By preferring kind words and gentile
gestures over forceful sanctions, the old democratic core of the EU
only further legitimize a ruthlessly anti-democratic regime.
Concerned primarily with the preservation of trade, investments and
travel junkets, the EU prefers a live-and-let live,
post-ideological arrangement with the Castro brothers. The EU's
interests guarantee that, in the words of one Cuban dissident, the
"monologue" between Europe and Cuba will be conducted through
communist interlocutors. In addition to providing a moral victory
to a dying but defiant Fidel, such an approach assures that tyranny
will continue to dictate the pace of economic and political change
Wither the U.S.?
The EU has elected to engage Cuba through unconditional dialogue
regardless of substantive improvement in Cuban human rights. From
its awkward phraseology designed not to offend to its surrender of
even the slightest pretense of moral criticism, the EU stakes its
position on a rose-colored vision of political change in Cuba. Such
a position attributes a spirit of open-mindedness and reciprocity
that appears altogether absent in Cuba's leadership.
Ultimately, the end of EU sanctions will have little effect on
the Cuban economy. Thanks largely to President Hugo Chávez
of Venezuela, Canada, China and the Spanish, Cuba's economy remains
moribund, but capable of survival. As Fidel Castro responded, the
end of sanctions will not have "absolutely any economic
Yet, the repercussions of the EU's actions cannot be measured by
economic considerations alone. Democracy and human liberty advance
or retreat on a case-by-case basis. The precedence set by the EU
will certainly not go unnoticed by the rising autocracies of Russia
and China or by brutal tyrannies clinging to power in Burma, Sudan,
Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The EU's willingness to do business with
tyrants strengthens the hand of other leaders trampling democratic
and human rights. Even the nations of the Americas, committed to
their citizen's right to democracy as specified by the Democratic
Charter of the Organization of American States, applauded the EU's
Unfortunately, the EU's reversal will further the international
isolation of the U.S.'s principled commitment to genuine democratic
change in Cuba. Fear of such global disapproval, even as a price
for defending human rights, creates additional pressures for
American political leaders to imitate their EU counterparts and
propose negotiations without conditions and the lifting of economic
sanctions without a commitment to reciprocal change.
A Cuba policy that offers unconditional negotiations with the
Castro regime or the removal of sanctions and controls without
positive actions on the part of the Cuban government to release
political prisoners and initiate a serious dialogue with Cuba's
civil society and its fledgling democratic opposition would
represent a step back from fundamental U.S. human rights
commitments worldwide. Therefore, despite the EU's recent actions,
the U.S. must maintain its commitment to a free Cuba, even when
such a commitment demands the continuation of internationally
Ray Walser is
Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.