What will it take for some European countries and EU foreign service mavens to finally take off the rose-colored glasses and recognize Cuba as a ruthless, brutal dictatorship no different than Nicaragua or Venezuela?
Apparently the current Cuban crisis – the worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and whose root cause is a corrupt, command economy that enriches the regime, leaves citizens with crumbs and imprisons, tortures and even murders persons that dare to speak out - is not enough.
That became obvious at the end of the July when EU member states adopted Nicaraguan and Cuban political declarations on consecutive days. In a country where European companies have few investments, the EU upped the pressure on Nicaragua's revolutionary-cum dictator Daniel Ortega. New EU economic and travel sanctions were extended on the former Sandinista rebel and his cronies that long ago jettisoned the cause of social democracy after valiantly leading a 1980s revolutionary campaign against the corrupt, murderous Somoza regime aided and abetted for years by the CIA.
Of course Ortega's volt-face came straight from the Fidel Castro playbook: pose as a left-wing freedom fighter, use a David vs. Goliath charm offensive to galvanize western democratic support and then hoodwink the supporters – and I include myself in that category - all the way to the bank and the stuffed ballot box.
But when it comes to the contemporary Cuban cabal of Castro heirs that have doubled down on the martyr vs. U.S. robber baron message while eschewing any democratic or meaningful economic reform, EU policy is hands off. On a late Friday afternoon at the end of July while most of the Brussels bubble deflated for summer holidays the Council of Ministers issued its Cuba declaration. It was full of standard diplomatic boilerplate. "We are very concerned'' or "we call on'' or "we urge'' or "we stand ready.'' As for sanctions such as those imposed on Nicaragua or previously on Venezuela? No mention.
Queried about the discrepancy, a substitute European Commission spokesman – apparently the foreign service experts had already scampered off to the beach – said different countries warrant different policies. As for what circumstances made Cuba different from Nicaragua or Venezuela? No comment.
Despite the lack of an explanation for the kid-glove Cuba approach the EU diplomatic brain trust did not miss an opportunity in the declaration to lecture the U.S. about what it's Cuba policy should be. Surprisingly that advice did not revert to form and call for an end to the half-century old U.S. trade embargo on which Castro Cubans consistently and conveniently blame all of their problems.
The trade embargo restraint, which EU external action chief Josep Borrell insisted should be lifted as recently as February at a Moscow press conference while being humiliated by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on other issues, was most likely due to a March 16 letter sent by 16 cross-party European Parliamentarians. They demanded the resignation of the EU ambassador to Cuba Alberto Navarro after he signed in early 2021 a petition to U.S. President Joe Biden that called for an end to the trade embargo.
Nonetheless the EU did call on the Biden Administration to lift the remittance restrictions Cuban emigres – of which there are now more as many as 1.5 million in Florida alone – send to Cuba. In a country where the average Cuban salary is approximately $30 a month, the remittances, which amounted annually to approximately $1.5 billion before they were disallowed in 2017, have been a lifeline for many Cuban families. They have also been a cash cow for the Cuban government, which siphons off a significant percentage via rip-off exchange rates.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who cozied up to nearly every right-wing dictator he met during his four year term, came down hard on Havana for political reasons. One of those had to do with his egoistic obsession to one-up and/or reverse Obama policies. If you know anything about the Cuban clout in the politically important state of Florida you also understand the second reason, which denied Raul Castro and his hand-picked puppet Miguel Diaz-Canel the same Trump embrace awarded North Korea's Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin.
From its perspective the EU considers the remittance advice to be a non-political, humanitarian gesture that would immediately help Cubans facing food and medicine shortages. After all Biden did commit to do the same during his U.S presidency campaign.
But the EU remittance and travel advice in the otherwise vapid EU Cuban declaration is the latest example of the sometimes naive, sometimes cynical and hypocritical approach the EU has taken towards Cuba over the past 25 years. First and foremost the EU policy is designed to protect EU companies with billions of dollars of investments in the country.
One of the the most egregious example of that are European-owned luxury hotel resorts – primarily Spanish and French - that are de facto off limits to the average Cuban citizen other than for maintenance or entertainment work. While the law sanctioning a legal restriction was officially ended in 2008 in effect only Cuban government officials or Communist party members rewarded for "community service'' including spying on their neighbours, are guests at the resorts.
What many EU governments and EU officials fail to appreciate is the complex U.S. political-economic dynamic that has evolved in the last 50 years because Cuba has steadfastly refused a path towards social democracy. For example the Cuban-American lobby is itself actually divided on key issues, including the trade embargo, remittances and the wet feet-dry feet Cuban immigration exception Trump ended. But on one point there is Cuban-American consensus: EU policy is still romantically rooted to Fidel and Che Guevara as heroes that freed the Cuban people from the Batista dictatorship propped up by the CIA and the mafia.
While there are still some left-wing Americans politicians, including a few in the U.S. Democratic Party, also still anchored to that past, it is becoming clear that Biden is also looking backwards. But what the U.S. President's sees has nothing to do with what happened 60 years ago. He is focused on previous Democratic Party detente attempts with Cuba dating back to the 1970s – all of which Castro failed to reciprocate. Elected in 1976 U.S. President Jimmy Carter's move to relax restrictions on Cuba merited the Mariel boat lift where Castro cynically opened the migration flood gates to approximately 125,000 people including thousands of convicted criminals and mental hospital patients.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, took a look-the-other-way approach to the Cuban trade and travel restrictions. Believe it or not there was a period when U.S. custom officials actually handed out brochures on how to bypass Cuban travel, trade and currency restrictions. The Cuban government countered that goodwill effort by shooting down over international waters two unarmed civilian planes piloted by Cuban immigrants after they dropped anti-government leaflets on Havana.
The plane-downing episode led to the infamous Helms-Burton extraterritorial trade sanction law passed in the U.S. Congress that targeted EU and other foreign companies doing business on expropriated Cuban properties, including on some that were previously owned by families or companies never given due process or compensation.
That law triggered an EU complaint before the World Trade Organization, which was in its infancy and politically fragile. The blind eye towards European companies using expropriated properties in Cuba came despite the legacy of Nazi and post-WW II communist regime expropriated properties still being adjudicated in European courts.
In the case of the Barack Obama's good-faith Cuban efforts and historic visit, again, nothing changed politically on the island. Despite the photo ops and new era commitments made to the 44th U.S. President, Fidel and brother Raul enhanced their stranglehold on democratic campaigners. In addition the Cuban government green-lighted the bombardment of the American embassy with microwave radiation. That back-stabbing move caused serious health issues for embassy personnel that continue to this day.
Clearly Biden and his foreign policy are wary and consider recent economic reforms as little more than window dressing to appease countries such as those in Europe.
Ultimately the Biden Administration faces the question that has lingered for a quarter of a century over the debate about lifting trade embargo and the remittance and travel restrictions: would the economic benefits embolden the average Cuban citizen and galvanize a move to democracy or would it further enrich the Cuban military, police and Communist Party and bolster their ironclad restraints on democracy?
Twenty five years ago former U.S. House of Representative member Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a son of a Cuban immigrant and Republican Party member based in Miami, was in Brussels. He was trying to unsuccessfully convince the European Commission to drop its WTO complaint against the U.S. Helms-Burton legislation.
As a journalist covering the trade dispute and overall EU-U.S. relations at the time I interviewed Diaz-Balart and asked him if it was time the U.S. repealed the trade embargo considering it had not achieved its objective and Castro continued to masterfully manipulate it to cover up corruption and human rights abuses. He insisted that lifting the trade embargo would only allow Castro to tighten his stranglehold on democracy. He insisted that anyone who thought otherwise were blind to the reality of the past 20 years.
At the time I dismissed Diaz-Balart's response as typical of many first generation Cuban immigrants in Florida bent on revenge. Although I had realized by that time Castro the hero had morphed into a corrupt thug masquerading as a social saviour – a reality that nearly all of my European media had failed to understand - I was convinced Diaz-Balart was wrong.
Twenty-five years later I still have a vivid memory of that interview with Diaz-Balart. I have to acknowledge that he was right. It is time the European Union foreign policy mandarins do the same.