Europe approves negotiations with Cuba

The Cuban government has welcomed a European Union initiative for bilateral negotiations that include the issue of human rights, even as dissidents said they suspect the EU’s negotiating stance lacks sufficient focus on democracy.

EU foreign ministers on Monday gave final approval to a united stance for the negotiations, expected to start soon, last more than one year and, if successful, lead to the end of a EU “Common Position” that has linked improvements in bilateral relations to human rights since 1996.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, asserted Monday that the negotiating stance hammered out by member countries over recent months includes respect for human rights.

“We have laid out, in a coherent manner, our concerns for human rights, which will remain central to this relationship, and I hope Cuba will do what’s necessary,” Ashton declared. “The rhythm of our negotiations will be a reflection of that.”

Gonzalo de Benito, the secretary of state for foreign affairs for Spain, whose country led the push for the bilateral talks, also insisted that respect for human rights will be a strong element in the negotiations.

Any agreement reached, he told journalists at EU headquarters in Belgium, will be based on the principles of promoting a better quality of life for Cubans and “putting special emphasis on human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms.”

A Cuban Foreign Ministry statement on the final EU approval said Havana would “consider” the talks in a positive light but made no mention of human rights.

In 2008, Cuba agreed to talks with the EU based on mutual respect, reciprocal agreements and no interference on domestic affairs, the statement said, and those principles “remain in effect.”

Cuba has not publicly agreed to discuss the issue of human rights with the EU, but “under the table” abandoned its long-standing rejection of negotiations unless Europe first ended the Common Position, said Joaquin Roy, a University of Miami expert on the European Union.

“You will not see an explicit acceptance by Cuba of talks without restrictions on issues, but they will do it,” Roy said, describing the months of Spanish-led diplomacy to bring Cuba and the EU to the negotiating table as “a master work of ambiguity.”

Dissidents and exiles meanwhile said Monday they did not trust the EU promises that its talks with the communist-ruled island will address the issue of human rights.

“There must be a requirement that the Cuban government comply with international declarations on human rights, and not systematically violate them as it’s done here,” said Guillermo Fariñas, spokesman for the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union.

“To do otherwise would be to betray the people of Cuba,” said Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience in 2010. “The people of Europe have a moral obligation to defend representative democracy in any country.”

Fariñas added that he might return his Sakharov prize and stage other public protests if the EU negotiations with Cuba did not put a strong emphasis on human rights.

Orlando Gutierrez, head of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami, which supports opposition activists on the island, said he also suspected that the human rights issue might be pushed to the back of the EU-Cuba negotiations.

“If these conversations with the Cuban regime do not have democracy and respect for human rights as a priority, it would be a disservice to the people of Cuba and would threaten democracy in all of the hemisphere,” Gutierrez said.

The “Common Position” says that the goal of EU relations with Cuba “is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.”

The EU nevertheless has approved more than $40 million in assistance to Cuba since 2008 for environmental projects and reconstruction following hurricanes, and individual member states have no restrictions on their relations with the island.

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