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Rebellious Spain stands firm in pursuit of change to EU Cuba policy

Officially, the European Union has a Common Position on relations with Cuba. In reality, Spain has deviated from that position to such an extent that it sees itself as a lone force pushing for change in the EU's stance.

EU and Cuba flags

The EU is officially united on Cuba but Spain has other ideas

How does one solve a problem like Cuba? Even the United States, which has had a very clear Cuba policy for the past 50 years, finds it increasingly difficult to understand the real motives behind the contradictory actions and words coming from the regime in Havana. The political climate seems to change daily; strong hints of democratic reform and the upholding of human rights are often followed by a return to bellicose anti-capitalist statements and crackdowns.

Despite the ambiguous nature of Cuba's current international persona, the US position remains clear. Since April 2009, President Barack Obama has been implementing a less strict policy toward Cuba and has stated that he is open to dialogue with Havana. Some economic sanctions and travel restrictions have since been eased but the trade embargo, which has stood since 1960, will only end when Cuba shows real political change.

If only the European Union's stance was as clearly defined. Until recently, it looked as though it was. But in the last few months, divisions have started to appear and the bedrock on which Europe's Cuba policy is built has started to show some cracks.

Complicated bloc agrees on Cuba position in 1996

While the US has the luxury of speaking with one voice, the EU has 27 which have to be singing from the same song sheet for anything of any consequence and credibility to be unanimously agreed upon. It looked as though the EU choir was on the same page when, in 1996, the member states all agreed on the Common Position in regard to relations with Cuba.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro

Raul Castro's Cuba needs to change to meet EU criteria

Before the US under Obama came to the same decision, the EU agreed that the best way to encourage a change in political direction in Cuba would be through offering incentives. The EU would normalize relations with Havana if there was progress on human rights and democratization. The EU would not inflict sanctions as such but its constructive engagement with Cuba would be implemented as part of its third world aid policy which would benefit the population, not the regime.

"The EU seeks to assist the people of Cuba to develop their society and the EU believes that democratic values, respect for human rights and economic freedom are part of this development," Dr. Juan Diaz, the director of the CSS Project for Integrative Mediation, a Berlin-based conflict resolution project financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "The EU does not necessarily believe that sanctions are the most appropriate ways of achieving these goals."

The Common Position survived two rounds of EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007, with the new eastern states signing up to the 1996 agreement. However, EU solidarity on Cuba began wavering when Spain elected a socialist government in 2004 and then took a substantial blow when that same government took over the EU presidency at the start of this year.

Spain pushes own case for Cuba dialogue

As holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, Spain tried to massively influence the EU position on Cuba by pushing for increased dialogue and a normalization of relations despite Cuba not yet meeting the benchmarks set out in the Common Position.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos

Spain's push for a policy change is led by Moratinos

"The relationship between the EU and Cuba has always been superficial," Thiago de Aragao, Latin American senior research associate at the Foreign Policy Center, a London-based European think-tank, told Deutsche Welle.

"The only difference has been the relationship between Cuba and Spain, which due to history has been deeper. Spain has always had closer ties with Cuba. Spain has always been the most active EU state in encouraging talks between the countries in the hope of democratic openings."

Spain's argument that a more relaxed EU position would actually help achieve the human rights and democratic reform it sought took a massive blow in February with the tragic death of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, who died as a result of a hunger strike while in prison. Spain was forced to condemn Cuba along with the rest of Europe and the international community and reinforce the EU position on standing firm until human rights abuses ended.

Moratinos strikes blow for Spanish policy with prisoner release

However, the struggle around the Common Position went on. Outside of EU structures, Spanish Foreign Secretary Miguel Angel Moratinos continued to pursue his own Cuba policy, much to the annoyance of fellow EU members, particularly Germany, France and Sweden.

"Germany holds strong to the Common Position and has been quite critical to the Spanish efforts to change it," Professor Guenther Maihold, the deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

"German Chancellor Merkel has been quite clear that she wants to see changes in the human rights record on the island before Germany would accept discussing a change in the European politics with respect to the Castro regime."

The criticism from fellow EU member states toward Spain became more muted in early July, however, when Moratinos, working with Cuba's Catholic Church, managed to get the Cuban government to agree to the release of 52 political prisoners.

Cuban dissidents wave for press photographers upon arrival at Madrid's Barajas airport from Cuba.

The released dissidents called on the EU to maintain its stance despite Spain's efforts to free them

Despite the apparent breakthrough brought about by Spain's brokering of the deal, and the acceptance of a number of the released dissidents by Madrid, the release did not get universal praise. Some of the dissidents, forced to leave Cuba as part of the release deal, accused the Cuban government of a shallow act to gain temporary favor.

They also called on the EU to remain firm in its Common Position to withhold support to Cuba until human rights and democracy were respected; a slap in the face to Spain which was hoping to promote its own approach to Havana through its successful negotiations.

"While Spain seems to see in the release of the prisoners a moment of change in the Cuban regime, many observers see heavy economic problems as a future trigger to some opening of the economic system of the island," Professor Maihold said. "After the release of prisoners we have always seen the arrest of new people and no change in the general politics of the regime."

It seems likely that the debate over the EU's Cuba policy will continue once the bloc's political summer break is over. Many in the EU see the release of the political prisoners by Cuba as a step toward Havana meeting the criteria Europe has set for the normalization of relations but not as a justification for increased dialogue or ties.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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