1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A Chance for Change?

Interviews: Nick Amies
March 6, 2008

Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development and Aid, leads an EU delegation to Cuba on Thursday, Feb. 6, to assess the political climate after the retirement of President Fidel Castro.

Castro grasping his forehead. Picture bisected by a flag
Fidel Castro may no longer be president but his influence over Cuba remains strongImage: AP

When Fidel Castro stepped down as president of Cuba last month after 49 years in power, the main question asked by the international community was whether democratic change could be expected in the wake of his abdication. A European Union delegation travels to Havana this week to see for itself if a new climate exists where normalized ties and engagement can survive. DW-WORLD.DE asked the opinions of three experts on the future of EU-Cuban relations.

Thiago de Aragao is the Latin American senior research associate at the Foreign Policy Center, a London-based European think-tank. Dr. Juan Diaz is the director of the CSS Project for Integrative Mediation, a Berlin-based conflict resolution project financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Dr. Karen Smith is a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics.

DW-WORLD.DE: How would you describe relations between the European Union and Cuba while Fidel Castro was in power?

Thiago de Aragao: The relationship was one of observation and monitoring. Due to obvious reasons, Spain always had closer ties with Cuba. As I recall, the Spanish embassy was always one of the busiest and most active in Havana. During the latter years, Castro was more flexible towards international dialogue, especially with Spain. The European Union never expected important changes while Castro was in power. Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development, always analyzed Cuba closely. He is the one that maintained high hope for the development of political talks with Cuba.

The commissioner for the Cooperation to the Development of the European Union, Louis Michel
Louis Michel has been the EU's point man on CubaImage: AP

Dr. Juan Diaz: The relationship has been on and off for many years. It seems that the EU, mostly due to Spain but also Italy, has tried to develop a constructive dialogue with Cuba. However, every time the EU opens up to Cuba and sends out signals, Cuba seems to find a way to complicate matters.

Dr. Karen Smith: The EU has never had what I would call 'institutionalized' relations with Cuba, meaning there is no official, legal agreement between the EU and Cuba, but the member states can and do engage extensively with the country. EU policy has been a mixture of 'un-institutionalized' engagement and very light and occasional negative measures. Light diplomatic sanctions were imposed in 2003 but have been suspended since 2005.

What were the main areas of conflict between EU and Cuba and what were the reasons for these?

TdA: The lack of disposition from the Europeans toward Cuba made it difficult to advance in conversations that could produce conflicts. When the Soviet Union died, Cuba also died to most European governments. Their expectations for democratic openings on the Caribbean island never surpassed the rhetorical value. In absolute terms, Cuba never represented anything of any worth for most European powers.

JD: Specific issues of concerns have included the EU ambassadors' demand that they are free to invite anyone to the embassies for events, and the arrest of dissidents. Fidel seems to have it in for EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana and has criticized him publicly on numerous occasions. This makes it difficult for the EU to implement a dialogue. But it continues to try.

KS: Democracy and human rights have always been areas of conflict. In addition, Cuba is a leading country of the Non-Aligned Movement, which generally opposes many EU positions within the UN, for example within the Human Rights Council. To the extent that the UN matters for the EU, then Cuban 'resistance' is an important area of conflict.

Had there been any movement towards better relations towards the end of Fidel's reign or had relations always been on an even-keel, either positively or negatively?

Fidel Castro, left, and his brother, Raul
The Castro brothers pose different problems for the EUImage: AP

TdA: The relationship has always been superficial. The only difference has been the relationship between Cuba and Spain, which due to history has been deeper. Spain always encouraged talks between the countries in the hope of democratic openings. In a way, talking with Fidel was easier than talking to Raul will be as Fidel is a more diplomatic character. On the other hand, Raul recognizes the need for certain changes for the sake of Cuba's future. If Fidel was easier to talk to but harder to convince, I believe Raul is the other way around.

Has the EU always taken a stance on Cuba in line with that of the United States?

TdA: I believe the EU's policy towards Cuba is partially linked with US policy. In terms of democratic values, the European Union and the US are linked. On the other hand, the policy practiced by the US is a legacy of the Cold War. The proximity of Cuba to the US means it has a different kind of relationship than the one the EU has with Cuba. Also, the amount of Cuban immigrants in the United States is a good enough reason to shape a foreign policy in different terms than the Europeans have. The EU has always given moral support to the United States, but very little effective support.

JD: The EU does not follow the US position but it is mindful to avoid as much as possible an irritation in the transatlantic relationship. The EU actually follows its own thinking on Cuba.

KS: The EU's position is not in line with that of the US. The EU has been firmly opposed to extraterritorial application of US sanctions on Cuba. However, its policy towards Cuba is necessarily linked to that of the US given Washington’s predominance in the region and also because member states would not wish to jeopardize good relations with the US over an issue like Cuba.

What would have been the European Union’s reaction to the news that Fidel Castro was stepping down? Would the EU see this as an opportunity to strengthen relations and push for more democracy in Cuba?

TdA: I believe everyone is seeing this as an opportunity to strengthen relations and push for democracy. During the last 50 years, we learned that Fidel Castro was a tough negotiator and really believed in the cause he was defending. When he stepped down, the world saw it as a revitalized opportunity to restart conversations and keep aiming for democratic openings. We must remember he is stepping down, but he is not dead. Even away from the chair, he is still deciding and talking every single day with Cuba. The navigator of the ship might change, but while he is alive, the course will remain fairly the same.

The Cuban flag and sculpture of Cuban hero Jose Marti
Democracy and dialogue with Cuba are the EU's aimsImage: AP

KS: This abdication has been on the cards for a while. But does it present an opportunity for change? Slowly, perhaps; but it could also be seen as an opportunity not to have to push too hard for democracy on the grounds that there is liberalization going on, and one wouldn't want to jeopardize that. Instead I see it as a chance to strengthen economic links which would be justified with the argument that economic growth and liberalization would lead eventually to more political liberalization. In any event, EU policy will undoubtedly depend on the outcome of elections in Spain, arguably the main driving force behind any EU policy towards Cuba; though the Czech Republic for one may try to push for a policy more tilted towards encouraging democracy and punishing any backsliding on that.

Is the EU’s main goal a democratic Cuba ? What does it stand to gain from a change in ideology in Cuba ? Does the EU have another agenda?

TdA: In economic terms, Cuba represents very little to the EU, the US, China, Brazil and other powerhouses. The main interest is definitely on the promotion of democracy. We must remember Cuba has very rich mining fields, though the exploration is still very amateurish. Perhaps a relaxation of restrictions could attract foreign mining companies. Besides the democratic opportunity, perhaps the availability of Cuban cigars is the main interest right now.

JD: I think that 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. However, they do not necessarily believe that sanctions are the most appropriate ways of achieving these goals.

General view of the 'Camilo Cienfuegos' oil refinery in Cienfuegos city, Cuba
European companies could be looking to invest in CubaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

KS: At a rhetorical level, yes the EU wants a democratic Cuba but in practice it hasn’t pushed particularly hard for this as it doesn’t want to be seen to be too close to the hard-line US position. The EU stands to gain in the removal of an issue causing some tensions with US and also the chance for more trade. A more open Cuba could be included in the Cotonou convention and therefore in the Economic Partnership Agreement with the Caribbean states.

Does the handing of the reins to Raul Castro signify any opportunity for a change in relations between the EU and Cuba ?

TdA: It is the beginning of a new era. The most important shift to be seen from Fidel stepping down is the increase in governmental responsibility that his Vice-President Carlos Lage will have. I believe he is the man to look at, not Raul Castro. For years Carlos Lage controlled the operations of the government machinery. Fidel worked mostly like the "Queen of England" in Cuba. Since Raul is less charismatic than Fidel, Carlos Lage will be more "hands on" during this new phase. Lage is more modern and admires very much the Chinese model. If there is a negative reaction towards Raul from the population, than Lage will gain in power and strength and will consequently have more opportunities to implement economic and political possibilities.

What does Raul Castro mean in terms for Cuba’s future role in the world? Does he represent the same obstinacy to change and opposition as embodied by his brother or could he be a reformer of any type?

TdA: I don’t think he represents the same obstinacy as his brother. Raul knows that the world today is different. Fidel is the king of a kingdom that failed to meet his standards. The vast majority of the world knows that. Raul will represent more the image of a melancholic past than the possibility of a socialist future. He will be like the owner of a beeper store in a world of mobile phones. People may be nostalgic, but that doesn’t mean they will buy them anymore.

JD: It is too early to tell whether Raul will change Cuba. For now he has shown that stability and continuity are priorities. Some say he is interested in economic reform. But the Cuban government always sought to develop economically and reform is part of that.

What will the EU delegation heading to Cuba this week hope to achieve?

Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage
Could Carlos Lage be Cuba's most likely agent of change?Image: AP

TdA: They will hope to understand the new structure of the Cuban government. They will ask themselves questions: to what extent is Fidel still the boss? What is the public opinion towards Raul? How modern and effective is Carlos Lage? How the population is dealing with this new period? I believe these are the key questions the EU officials are aiming to answer.

JD: I think the main aim for the EU delegation is to restart a constructive dialogue with Cuba.

Raul Castro is not a young man. When it is his time to step down, are there any young potential leaders-in-waiting and if so, who are they, what are their beliefs? Are they young revolutionaries or is there a movement for democratic change just waiting to claim Cuba once the old guard is gone for good?

TdA: Carlos Lage is the strongest at the moment. He is only 56; an open-minded, admirer of the Chinese economy and one who is aware of the difficulties of his country. Between Fidel, Raul and Lage, he is the one that knows the world he lives in. He can differentiate between utopia and realism.

JD: There is much speculation as to what might or might not happen but Cuba has demonstrated time and again that it will not be dictated to by the US or Europe and it resists pressure. Many thought that finally Carlos Lage, economically liberal and moderate in the government, would have received a more prominent role. But he did not. Whether this will change in time, we will just have to wait and see.