The Odd Couple: The EU and Cuba 1996-2008

Paul Hare


What has EU policy towards Cuba achieved? What might have been done differently? What lessons does EU policy offer for other countries in the context of a changing regime in Havana? Is foreign policy a key component in any peaceful transition in Cuba?

The EU and Cuba

Few things are ever quite what they seem in Cuba policy. On 19 June 2008, the EU withdrew its June 2003 ‘sanctions’ imposed after the March 2003 crackdown on the Cuban dissident groups. The measures had been suspended since January 2005, following the release of 14 of the 75 arrested. In its June 2008 statement, the EU said they would re-evaluate the position in Cuba after 12 months depending on Cuban performance in areas like human rights and internet access, but the 2003 measures were finally lifted. Meanwhile, life goes on in Cuban jails for 55 of those sentenced in the crackdown along with some 200 others for political offences. Other harassment of those who disagree with the Cuban government remains commonplace. So why did the EU move as it did? Was the policy a failure and what will a new era of dialogue produce?

The EU does not prima facie have many natural attributes as an effective interlocutor with Cuba. It is now 27 countries of many different sizes and traditions. All have elections which regularly change the political complexion and personalities of its member governments. And the majority of its members have only modest commercial interests in Cuba. Spain is of course a key exception. It was a domestic election in Spain in March 2004 which changed the EU discussion on Cuba, mainly for reasons of Spanish domestic politics.

By contrast Cuba has had the same ruling family since 1959 and the same still youthful foreign minister since 1999. They watch and wait and are under no internal or media pressure to change their policy.

The EU in 2008 is returning to a policy it has undertaken for many years. Those calling for renewed dialogue perhaps forget that the EU has never cut dialogue. Indeed what happened in March 2003 was the culmination of EU dialogue, the opening of the formal EU office in Cuba. The EU has had a Common Position on Cuba from 1996 and this establishes the parameters for such a dialogue. The Common Position states:

The objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people. A transition would most likely be peaceful if the present regime were itself to initiate or permit such a process. It is not European Union policy to try to bring about change by coercive measures with the effect of increasing the economic hardship of the Cuban people.

The European Union considers that full cooperation with Cuba will depend upon improvements in human rights and political freedom”

The Common Position is specific as to how these ends should be achieved. Of most relevance is the commitment at (b) “to seek out opportunities – even more actively than heretofore – to remind the Cuban authorities, both publicly and privately, of fundamental responsibilities regarding human rights, in particular freedom of speech and association”

The Common Position does not exclude applying humanitarian and economic aid, including channeling funds through NGOs, such as churches. It envisages a measured response; more progress on democracy, more dialogue and cooperation.

Related Books

Was this a reasonable position to take in the 1990s? And what happened between 1996 and 2003?

The EU in Cuba 1996-2003

A Common Position is not unusual in EU foreign policy. They exist for many countries such as Belarus, Libya, Myanmar and North Korea. The EU even has some ‘Joint Actions’ against the US in protecting its members from certain sanctions imposed by the US. So the Cuban government’s claim that the Common Position is a unique way of pressurizing them and is discriminatory is not true. It is in this way the EU operates, giving clarity to collective foreign policy. Those who have relations with it must recognize this.

The Common Position gave the EU a platform for a concerted push to develop relations with Cuba. Despite initial Cuban suspicions, the Cubans accepted many sessions of dialogue after 1996, scores of visits by Ministers from EU countries and from members of the EU Commission. From the UK alone there were at least 7 ministerial visits to Cuba between 2001 and 2004 and several Cuban Ministers visited London. There were many more from European Commissioners, with Louis Michel as Belgian Foreign Minister showing a particular appetite for the subject, and from delegations of the European Parliament.

Trade, investment and tourism followed. The context was the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s urgent need for new economic partners. Fidel Castro had also decided that Cuba could no longer sit on the sidelines of international tourism. EU companies took the signal and even with foreign investment laws that were not problem-free (such as the inability to contract for labor directly), many EU companies proposed joint investments. By 2003 EU countries provided over half the tourists to Cuba, more than half of the 400 foreign investment joint ventures and was the largest single aid donor. In 2001/02 the EU was Cuba’s largest trade partner. EU exports to Cuba amounted to €1.43 billion (44 percent from Spain, followed by Italy and France), while imports from Cuba stood at €581 million.


The EU was also well-placed to develop its policies by having diplomats on the ground. Havana prides itself on the number of foreign missions it hosts. Most are small in terms of size and many have political appointees as ambassadors who are sympathetic to the Communist Government. The EU is different. New member countries like the Czech Republic and Poland came to the Cuba issue fresh from years of political repression. And with 16 of the 25 countries who were member states in 2003 represented in Havana, the EU was a significant bloc. There was close coordination between missions and the EU developed a wider array of contacts in academia, business, education, science, sport etc than any other regional grouping.

Cuba was also a good experiment for EU policy. It was not in a crisis area and was not a political priority for any country. The EU members included countries with recent transition experience from communism, others with a common Roman Catholic heritage and economic and political systems with strong social democratic features. The Common Position had been proposed by the Prime Minister of Spain, but it suited other EU members, eager to differentiate EU policy from the US and spearhead a coordinated commercial move into Cuba. Many in EU political circles had grown up in the1960s and 70s when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were untainted heroes of the left. Cuba in the 1990s still had much EU goodwill in its account.

Cuba did not represent immediate economic benefits for the EU. This had little or nothing to do with US sanctions. The prizes offered in investment terms were relatively small. Key Cuban economic sectors like telecommunications and energy were of course still controlled by the state. And the nickel sector was largely sewn up by the Canadian company Sherritt. Tourism was growing from a low base and the Spanish, Germans and others moved in quickly. But companies from other countries like Canada and Switzerland, as well as from Israel and South Korea which had no diplomatic relations with Cuba, also benefited commercially from the openings encouraged by the EU. Beyond cigars and rum, the Cubans have few products of interest to EU consumers, and the Cubans have little money to buy expensive hard currency imports. Cuba had to give priority to feeding itself as food accounts for over 80% of imports. And the EU did not supply basic foodstuffs. Though the trade figures for EU imports from Cuba looked impressive in these years they are distorted by a high figure for the Netherlands which is accounted for by imports of nickel for refining.

How did Cuba regard the EU? In the absence of any obvious alternative in the late 1990s the Cuban government saw the EU as potentially its strongest economic partner. Politically, it was more complicated but it was certainly in Cuba’s interests to create sympathy and familiarity with its cause in the EU. The EU showed that Cuba could interact meaningfully with developed countries, in contrast to US policy which maintained there should be no real interaction. And the relations with the EU developed despite the fact that Jose Maria Aznar and Fidel Castro were far from political soulmates. Aznar’s grandparents had lived in Cuba and he regarded the island as the ‘unsolved problem of the West’. Not all in the EU agreed, or indeed cared much. But there seemed little downside to any experiment in Cuba and modest chances of success.

The EU also benefited by having relatively little competition in the field of policy. Other countries and groupings were not yet making a decisive move to get closer to Cuba. The Former Soviet Union was exhausted and many Eastern European countries were keen to align with the EU and NATO. Chavez did not come to power until 1998, and Venezuela did not emerge as key ally of Cuba until after the 2002 coup attempt. Most other Latin American countries saw the downside risk of becoming entangled with Cuba as higher than the advantages. Regular tiffs with countries such as Chile, Mexico and Argentina set the pattern and even Lula in Brazil was cautious in the early stages of his government about upsetting the US. The Japanese and Canadians saw Cuba as offering some economic opportunities and more as a relatively risk-free way of showing a foreign policy independent of the US. The Chinese were close politically to Cuba but could not work out how to interact with a country that seemed to believe that socialism should renounce materialism. As for the US itself, there was no significant change in its measures against Cuba. There had been several signals that major changes were on the way, such as a more liberal policy on visits from the US. But these signals encouraged the EU to press ahead with its engagement. With the US measures in place since well before the EU Common Position, the EU had the opportunity to work up a coordinated foreign policy with few distractions.

The EU did not just open its arms and embrace Cuba with no criticism. It continued to use the Human Rights Commission in Geneva to register its disapproval of the Cuban government’s repressive policies. During most visits of EU officials to Cuba, they would meet with Cuban dissidents. Though the Cuban government did not approve they did not forbid the meetings. Rather they relied on making them difficult, for example by requiring dissidents to report at their workplaces at times scheduled for meetings, or harassing human rights officers through early morning anonymous phone-calls at home. EU embassies continued to meet regularly with representatives of the dissident groups. At the same time the EU continued to vote against the US sanctions on Cuba in the annual UN General Assembly votes.

The EU could see with some satisfaction the results of its policy. During the late 1990s and early 2000s most EU Cuba policy makers assumed that Cuba was evolving in a positive direction. The bilateral and collective programs were accelerating. Seminars on environment, health, education, and delegations to trade fairs abounded. Joint ventures and academic exchanges flourished. The Cubans responded with VIP treatment and visitors from all walks of EU life showed a healthy appetite to make the trip to Cuba. There were signs of openness – the Varela petition, the visit of Jimmy Carter. Oswaldo Paya was allowed to leave the country to visit Europe and the US. In October 2002 the UK organised a conference in England looking at future transition scenarios. Junior members of the Cuban government, the church and some NGOS with operations in Cuba participated in a common discussion. There was perhaps less harassment of the opposition, and embassies were allowed a certain leeway to meet openly with opposition.

What Changed in 2003

What changed in 2003? To understand what happened in Cuba in 2003 and led to the EU sanctions in June 2003 it is helpful to review some key dates in the months before. They illustrate how foreign policy has been used by the Cuban government to promote its interests, retain control and maintain economic viability. The EU had been making plans for a smooth evolution in its Cuba policy. But the Cuban government did not see it that way and other factors got in the way.

The Cotonou Agreement was part of the EU’s concerted policy towards Cuba. The framework of the EU’s cooperation with developing countries was established in the Cotonou Agreement (succeeding the Lome Agreement) and Cuba was one of the few countries excluded from membership. Cuba submitted an application to join Cotonou in 1999. Supported by the ACP, Cuba was at the time attending the negotiations as an observer. Cotonou differed from Lome in requiring some conditionality for assistance. The degree of openness and the role of civil society in a recipient country were important considerations. Cuba was indicating in the negotiations it would consider making small concessions in the areas of political freedoms and human rights. Nevertheless the issues were still sensitive. The EU had voted for a UN Human Rights Commission motion in Geneva in 2000 condemning human rights violations in Cuba, and Cuba’s application to Cotonou was withdrawn in April 2000. In 2001 talks resumed and the EU countries again voted against Cuba in Geneva. This time there was no break and in December 2002 Fidel Castro reapplied to join Cotonou.

Meanwhile the event of probably the greatest importance in this changing scenario was the failed coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in April 2002. The Cuban embassy in Caracas had been attacked and Chavez’s life seemed in danger. The Cuban government asked the EU to charter a plane to carry him to safety to Cuba. However events moved quickly. Chavez returned to power and thereafter seemed determined to listen much more carefully to the policy advice of Fidel Castro. Venezuelan-Cuban relations intensified to unprecedented levels of cooperation. Cuban doctors and advisers began to move to Venezuela in vast numbers, an influx at first denied by the Venezuelan government. Chavez started Cuban-style literacy and social programs, and adopted a more strident anti-US stance. He fought off the PDVSA oil strike of late 2002 and early 2003. And, critically for Cuba, the oil started to flow in big quantities from Venezuela.

In February 2003, Fidel Castro visited China. He detested what he saw in the spectacular development, and the Chinese embrace of capitalism, incentives and material advance. ‘I don’t know this country anymore’ summarized his reaction. He rejected going down the Chinese route, saying his revolution in Cuba had nothing to learn from them. Early 2003 also saw the preparations for the war in Iraq. The failure of UN resolutions to persuade the Iraqis to produce a full accounting of their destruction of weapons of mass destruction led most analysts to forecast military action. Cuba could see this as well as anyone.

US policy and the behavior of the dissidents were also factors in a changing scenario. In 2002 congressional moves to relax the travel ban were promoted vigorously by a bipartisan group headed by Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Bill Delahunt. In July 2002 the House voted to limit Treasury funding to enforce the travel ban on Cuba. At the same time trade delegations from US states were visiting Cuba with increasing frequency and US sales to Cuba of food for cash was growing fast. In May 2002 Fidel Castro had had to sit and listen in Havana University – as did viewers on live Cuban TV – whilst Jimmy Carter discussed the merits of Oswaldo Paya’s Varela project petition. In October 2002 the European Parliament awarded Oswaldo Paya its Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought.

In retrospect late 2002 was probably the high watermark of EU/Cuba relations. Yet at that time there were already signs that proposals for new EU foreign investment joint ventures in Cuba were being stalled. This seemed to indicate a period of consolidation by the Cuban government as there was no shortage of new proposals. The Cuban government were increasingly tough on conditions applied to foreign investors, including in higher tax takes. This affected some of the early proposals from the EU to cooperate in oil exploration. Fidel Castro appeared to think that the 400 or so foreign joint ventures were enough for Cuba.

Against this backdrop, the EU had long been planning a formal sealing of its relationship with Cuba. In August 2001, a delegation led by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, President in Office of the EU Council of Ministers, made an official visit to Cuba. Michel lobbied hard for moving to a new relationship. EU policy procedures do not move quickly so it took time to cement the terms. The EU sent an official in 2002 to establish himself in Cuba and prepare the way. The EU assumed, perhaps with justification, that the Cubans were like-minded. But the capacity of the Cubans to move decisively and quickly was perhaps something the EU underestimated. Whatever Fidel Castro did would be a personal decision, implemented with unquestioning vigor, and not subject to Cuban media or parliamentary scrutiny.

On 13 March 2003 the EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielson inaugurated the Union’s first full Delegation in Havana. There was much ceremony and a special performance by an EU ballet company. Commissioner Nielson said ‘We want today to send a clear message to our partners and friends inside and outside Cuba: the European Union intends to strengthen and widen its relations with Cuba in the political, economic, social and cultural fields’. He used a Spanish proverb to characterize the new relationship ‘Today, I love you more than yesterday, but less than tomorrow. Let’s all work together that this can become the lasting motto of EU-Cuban relations’. It seemed therefore that the future of EU-Cuban relations was well set. 13 March 2003 was the culmination of EU policy of critical dialogue. Five days later, to coincide with the invasion of Iraq, Castro rounded up 75 of the most prominent dissidents on the island. It was the most destructive attack on the opposition for over a decade. In retrospect it is clear that the process of greater political openness had never been planned to continue indefinitely. In December 2002, Oscar Biscet, a pediatrician and human rights activist had been rearrested. He had had 36 days of liberty following a three year jail term. He was sentenced this time to 25 years in jail.

The likelihood is that Fidel Castro had made several key strategic decisions before March 2003.

First there would be no more liberalization of the economy. Private sector licences for Cubans were drastically reduced. Foreign investment joint ventures were not approved. Venezuela was to become the key economic partner for Cuba with a starkly lopsided accounting balance favoring Cuba. Oil started to flow with a figleaf of a barter arrangement involving Cuban medical personnel, but in reality little accounting.

Second, a key objective of Fidel Castro was to decimate the Varela petition activists. Over half of the 75 arrested were Varela organisers. And leading dissident figures like Martha Beatriz Roque, Raul Rivero and members of the independent libraries were rounded up, given summary trails and, as one South African diplomat put it, jail sentences of Mandela proportions. Three black hijackers of a ferry in which noone was killed or injured were executed. Castro insisted all the members of the Council of State sign the execution orders. He feared a mass exodus which might provoke US measures to restore stability in Cuba.

A third objective of Fidel Castro may have been to forestall US congressional moves to lift the embargo. He has always seen hostility of the US as fundamental to his foreign policy. With a more assertive internal opposition the last thing he wanted was the dropping of the US measures which remained his main justification for the economic and political sacrifices of the Cuban people.

The EU ‘s reaction in 2003

The evidence suggests that Fidel Castro did not expect the EU’s reaction. The Cuban government appears to have assumed it would soon be business as usual after a few high-minded and hand-wringing statements. Ministers brushed off those arrested as ‘mercenaries’, all of whom were working in the pay of the US. And one Minister even joked that half of them were Cuban state informers anyway. The world would be nervous about Iraq and would soon turn its attention to more important issues. But the EU felt badly deceived. Exactly a year before Fidel Castro and Perez Roque had looked to EU to rescue Chavez from Caracas and bring him to Cuba. They had built up expectations about political opening and more tolerance with their acceptance of the Cotonou convention and negotiations for the new EU office. Fidel Castro assumed that there would be no sustained EU reaction. Enough of the EU countries would be unwilling to jeopardize the contacts and the investment they had built up. Several of the EU ambassadors had strong personal relations with members of the Castro government. The EU would talk tough, there would be divisions they could play on, and it would blow over. Meanwhile his links to Venezuela offered a much better relationship with plenty of economic benefits but no conditionality.

EU Foreign Ministers condemned the Cuban crackdown. ‘These latest developments which mark a further deterioration in the human rights situation in Cuba will affect the EU’s relationship with Cuba and the prospects for increased cooperation’. This was followed by an announcement in May 2003 that the European Commission was shelving the bid by Cuba to join the Cotonou Agreement. In response, the Cuba government withdrew its application to join. The Cuban government blamed the European Commission for exerting undue pressure, and said it had abandoned any policy independent of the US.

The EU’s policy response came from ideas generated at local level. The immediate need was to implement an early reaction, because more arrests were possible including of key figures like Oswaldo Paya. The issuing of statements had been done many times before with little enduring effect. The credibility of the EU was at stake. The fact that the EU missions knew the dissidents well made them want to do more. The Common Position included the provision of reminding the Cuban authorities, both publicly and privately, of human rights obligations. Many felt that the executions were a dangerous precedent – indeed the Cuban official intelligentsia were more shocked at the executions than the arrests. There needed to be some EU reaction that was visible in public. The embassy receptions were not of course public but were events which would register with the Cuban authorities and the media.

By June 2003, the EU had come to its conclusions, based on local recommendations. It decided to review its Common Position on Cuba, limit high-level government visits, reduce member states’ participation in cultural events in Cuba and agree to invite representative of dissident groups and spouses of political prisoners to national day receptions. This should be alongside the usual list of government contacts. In retaliation, Fidel Castro ordered a freezing of contacts with EU embassies. There would be no appointments for ambassadors with the Cuban government. Later in June, Castro led huge protest demonstrations outside the Spanish and Italian embassies. The British embassy, the first to invite both government and dissidents to their national day and the only occasion where both attended, received a bomb threat. On 26 July, Castro announced that that he had decided to reject all EU aid. Castro argued that the government, ‘out of a basic sense of dignity, relinquishes any aid or remnant of humanitarian aid that may be offered by the European Commission and the governments of the European Union’. In September 2003 Cuba took control of Spain’s cultural centre in Havana, which the Spanish government had recently refurbished at a cost of 5 million euros.

EU/CUBA 2003-2008

The EU maintained solidarity for around 18 months. In 2003 all of the 16 missions plus Norway continued to invite the dissidents to their receptions alongside the government. The Cubans continued to implement their boycott of the receptions. But the publicity and controversy that the moves had generated served to maintain the cause of the political prisoners in media attention. These 17 missions constituted almost one-fifth of those active in Havana. The fact that the EU countries national days were well spread throughout the year was another advantage. But the decisive event in the change of EU policy was the defeat of the Spanish government in March 2004 by the PSOE under Rodriguez Zapatero. His foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos had plans to differentiate PSOE foreign policy from the PPP. This included reestablishing a dialogue with Cuba starting with the appointment of a new leftist-leading ambassador to Cuba, Carlos Alfonso Zaldivar. Moratinos said Spain should spearhead a new policy to Latin America independent of the US. Under Spain’s influence the EU became impatient with its sanctions and preferred to be seen as an engager. There were talks which suggested that Cuba would trade the release of some of the most high profile dissidents in return for suspending the measures. Before the EU decision to suspend the measures in January 2005, 14 prisoners including Martha Beatriz Roque, Raul Rivero and Oscar Chepe Espinosa were released with Cubans officially claiming health reasons. Since the lifting of the measures only another 6 have been released.

The releases of prominent political prisoners linked to EU policy appear to have ended. In retrospect the EU should perhaps have traded harder to lift its measures. The Cuban government cares greatly what countries think about it and reads what the international media write. In April 2007 Moratinos visited Cuba again to inaugurate a Spanish dialogue with Cuba. The results are not yet clear. But many in the EU have expressed optimism about improvements in openness under Raul Castro. His announcement of more land for private farmers, the scrapping of tourism apartheid against Cubans in hotels and restaurants, availability of cellphones and DVDs and signing two Human Rights Conventions have convinced a majority of the EU governments there exists a basis for a new era of dialogue. Louis Michel joined the Spanish calls for the measures to be lifted and the June 2008 vote was made. But harassment continues of many activists such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez and the punk rocker Gorki Aguila. The Cuban government is still keen to silence its opponents but since the EU stance is far more conscious of the international impact of its repression.



How did the peaceful opposition in Cuba view EU policy? The first asset the EU brought to bear was its diverse composition. This helped reassure the dissidents. They were not taking money, they were talking to governments who voted every year against the US measures in the UN General Assembly, they were protected by numbers. The invitations to receptions followed many years of close contact between EU missions and the opposition. The EU receptions were on non-Cuban soil, with the major international journalists also invited. The spouses of the prisoners, especially, felt safe and increasingly bonded, whereas previously they had hardly known each other. The invitations to Cuban civil society reflected normal practice in every other country in Latin America, where no EU country just invites government representatives to their national days. It also mirrored what the Cubans do in their embassies in EU capitals. Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, for example, would be a frequent guest of the Cuban embassy in London.

The EU’s reaction in 2003 was the most coherent of any group of countries. And its response, which became known as the ‘cocktail party’ wars, served to highlight the repression which led to further condemnation from other sources. The Pope called on Castro to show clemency to the three hijackers, and said the severe sentencing imposed on Cuban citizens had caused him distress. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes attacked Cuba’s ‘suffocating dictatorship’ and the Portuguese left-wing writer Jose Saramago said Fidel Castro had ‘cheated his dreams’. In 2004, a year after the EU’s campaign began, Raul Rivero, the poet and former official journalist, (now one of the 75 arrested), was awarded UNESCO’s freedom of the press award, with a jury chaired by a distinguished Jamaican journalist. This was perhaps the most damaging blow of all to the Cuban government. UNESCO and the UN had been seen by Fidel Castro as bastions of support. The current grouping, the Damas de Blanco originated from the solidarity for the prisoner’s wives who were invited to EU receptions. And it is interesting to recall that Fidel Castro was himself freed from jail in 1955 following a campaign by the prisoners’ mothers as Batista eventually agreed an amnesty for all political prisoners.

Castro’s freeze of EU missions did not prevent continued cooperation. The EU countries, despite the freeze in 2003-05, never gave up building contacts and spreading the message that they were willing and enthusiastic partners. Scholarships continued, consular work was still required for the hundreds of thousands of EU tourists, and education and cultural contacts, though diminished also continued. Commercial contacts were maintained and of course important bilateral agreements like the Investment Protection and Promotion treaties remained in force. In the British embassy we continued with a little imagination to stage our own cultural events, including a tour by British and Cuban rock bands. We continued with the British Council activities and sent four Cubans to scholarships at British Universities.

The EU’s conduct in this period showed to the opposition that the EU was taking a principled stand. The Cuban Government’s freeze might do some short term commercial damage but the EU demonstrated that relations could not and would not be turned off at will. Freezing the EU after 10 years of economic partnership was not like another tiff with a Latin American country. Insults might be hurled but there was too much to destroy. Economic interest suited both sides and the important business of tourism needed functioning embassies; otherwise tourists would not visit. The dissidents saw that the EU intended to be in Cuba through good and bad times. Even in 2006, about 36% of Cuba’s imports and 31% of its exports in 2006 were with the EU, making it as a group the island’s number one trading partner.

Results of EU commercial presence

Many Cubans have been prepared for the inevitable economic opening by working in and dealing with the hundreds of joint ventures started by EU countries. Companies such as Sol Melia, Havana Club (Pernod-Ricard), Castrol, ING bank, Suchel-Lever, Etecsa, Habanos tobacco ( now a subsidiary of Imperial tobacco), InBe