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Current Affairs

The EU Ship Sails into a Caribbean Storm

In just over a month, the once calm relations between the European Union and Cuba have grown stormy. A look back at happier times reveals how out of character this spat is.

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The once almost-friendly relationship between Europe and Cuba has broken down

In contrast to the United States, relations between communist Cuba and the European Union have been distinctly warm -- up until a month ago. As the island’s biggest trade partner and financial supporter, the EU’s relationship with president Fidel Castro was unparalleled among western states.

Then, in April, Cuba re-introduced the death penalty and executed three hijackers who commandeered a ferry in an attempt to escape to the United States. This was followed in June by the arrest of 75 political dissidents who were sentenced to long prison terms.

Cuba had instigated its harshest political clampdown in decades and the European Union joined the world in condemning it.

A look back at better times

But before the back and forth over the clamp-down stole the headlines, Europe and Cuba were -- one could go so far to say -- friends. Politicians such as Spain's Foreign Minister Abel Matutes, Manuel Marin, the former vice president of the European Commission and numerous EU delgations have been welcomed on the island and heads of states such as King Juan Carlos of Spain have met with Castro as the hand of friendship was extended further in the past decade.

In 1996, the EU offered to legitimately recognize Castro's Cuba and improve trade and diplomatic relations in return for assurances on human rights issues. While noises were made and trade improved, the core demands went unaddressed as the money flowed between them.

As well as accounting for some 40 percent of Cuba's trade, and much of its foreign investment, Europeans have also maintained links with Cuba through tourism and student exchange programs.

An estimated 6 million European tourists have visited the island in the last decade. Visitors from Germany, Italy, France and the U.K. continue to make up between 52 and 54 percent of Cuba's annual tourism numbers and the euro is widely accepted in many areas popular with European tourists.

But now, in the light of Cuba's latest actions, this history of exchange and friendship is in danger of collapsing into animosity.

The EU takes a hard line

In response to the "recent deplorable actions", the EU openly considered restricting its contact with Cuba. A sharply worded statement announced a number of possible sanctions, including the restriction of high-level government visits and limiting the profile of EU ambassadors at cultural events. A complete re-evaluation of relations was not ruled out.

The statement demanded the immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba. It added that the EU was "deeply concerned about the continuing flagrant violation of human rights and of fundamental freedoms of members of the Cuban opposition and of independent journalists."

Castro’s regime had violated fundamental freedoms in Cuba, said the statement, and its current clampdown was aimed at "depriving civilians of the ultimate human right, that of life". Indeed, these were harsh words, and not likely to go over well coming from a former friend.

Castro strikes back

Castro was enraged. Still fuming at the fact that EU ambassadors had been entertaining Cuban dissidents at social events, he lashed out. Most recently, at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the revolution that installed him as leader on Saturday, Castro verbally attacked the EU, calling it the "Trojan Horse" of the United States and stated that Cuba no longer needed EU funds to survive.

But this bold remark follows weeks of verbal tirades, with Castro taking on Europe collectively and European leaders individually.

Shortly after the EU statement was issued, Castro accused those who had signed it of bowing to the "Nazi-Fascist policy" of the United States. He said that the EU’s new policy "must have been written in a drunken state, if not with alcohol, then in a state of Euro-centric drunkenness."

Castro also had strong words for individual leaders.

Directing his ire at Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of the most vocal of the EU leaders in calling for sanctions, Castro said: "From a political and moral point of view, Aznar is a coward," and likened him to Adolf Hitler, calling him "the little Führer with the moustache."

Italy came next. Current EU president and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was branded a "fascist", "bandit" and "a clown" after Italy cut off €40 million in aid.

And, last but not least, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was attacked for leading the U.K. into a war with Iraq, and he was personally held responsible by Castro for his role in the death of scientist David Kelly, the biological weapons expert who committed suicide two weeks ago.

Possible consequences

Whether these and future remarks turn out to be bluster and nothing more remains to be seen. What is certain though is that Cuba’s powerful friend is not happy and the consequences may have more wide ranging effects than even Fidel Castro can imagine.

A breakdown in relations may not only cut the flow of cash from the politicians and businesses but a less than warm welcome from Fidel would surely put off some of the 150,000 European travelers that annually vacation on the island. There would not only be a damaging loss of revenue but also a loss of faith - something much harder to repair.

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