In their meeting on Feb. 10, the European Union foreign ministers are expected to approve the E.U. position for negotiations with Cuba about a new agreement between the two parties.
Leaders of Cuba’s pro-democracy movement on the island and in exile question whether the replacement of the 1996 so-called Common Position by a new instrument would be driven by economic interests of the member states and will abandon the Cuban people who desire the same civil liberties that Europeans enjoy. They point out that the Common Position places conditions on normalization of relations with Havana tied to significant human-rights improvement in Cuba, and fear that the E.U. meeting would ignore, like the CELAC meeting just held in Havana, the increase in government repression and provide some legitimacy to one of the world’s remaining totalitarian regimes.
Is it really so?
First of all, as Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said recently, the Common Position is to remain in force until a new, legally binding agreement is developed.
Even when this happens, its spirit is not going to disappear, but rather strengthen, and human rights should remain at the heart of the relationship between the European Union and Cuba and constitute an essential element of a new treaty.
And all 28 member states of the European Union must agree. Several among them were trapped for decades behind the Iron Curtain before 1989 and returned to Europe after the revolutions during that annus mirabilis. They went through post-communist transitions and will use their own experience in the upcoming Cuba discussions.
Whatever happens in Brussels in a few days, the negotiations that are to start on a governmental level between the European Union and Cuba will take time — it can be a couple of years — and there will be a space for public diplomacy and the participation of Cuban civil society.
The impulse to engage Havana is clear: Europe doesn’t want to treat Cuba any longer as a special case; it does not want to provide a justification, no matter how flimsy, for the regime to blame its repression on the need to defend the Cuban revolution.
Years ago, the regime withdrew its application to join the Cotonou Agreement, signed in 2000 between the European Union and 75 Latin American and African countries. That agreement aims to bring them into the world economy. Havana withdrew its application because the Europeans insisted that Cuba be treated like any other country; that human rights, environmental, labor and union requirements could not be waived and should be made a theme of “comprehensive, balanced and deep political dialogue, leading to commitments on both sides.”
Havana, which claims it wants to reform its dysfunctional social and economic system, now seems to agree with such a status change. So let it be, but with all the consequences!
For the Cuban dictator, the European readiness to engage Cuba in a discussion about a new European policy is a double-edged sword. While he hopes that a new agreement legitimizes his single-party state and his half-hearted economic reforms, the discussion with Europeans will also focus on the abuse of human rights, the restrictions on trade and commerce he imposes on the Cuban people and his unwillingness to liberate Cubans’ entrepreneur potential.
Let us be clear: A meeting of the European Union in Brussels will differ from the CELAC charade just held in Cuba.
The Europeans pledge that human rights are and will remain a central part of E.U. Cuba policy. Cuba’s human-rights activists and freedom advocates on the island have demonstrated great courage and commitment to freedom and human rights — fundamental European values and principles — for over half a century. If European deeds are consistent with European words, they should and must be heard in Brussels.
Those who are allowed now to travel abroad should explain as many times as necessary to European diplomats the real nature of the Castros’ regime.
The cause of freedom in Cuba has many friends around the world. The upcoming negotiation between the European Union and the Cuban government is a challenge for Cuba’s democracy advocates everywhere, but at the same time it is their great opportunity. All of us now have work to do.
Martin Palous, a former Czech ambassador to the United Nations, is director of the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague and senior fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He is president of the International Platform for Human Rights in Cuba.