This week Cuba and the European Union held the second round of talks to reset their relations. The previous period was marked by Cuba’s rejection and American disrespect for the 1996 European Common Position. That measure was a failed European attempt to define the terms of a triangular relationship that has at its other vertices the USA, in the logic of the great powers, and Cuba as an underdeveloped country, with a special historical, cultural and economic relationship with Europe. Despite the optimal position as a pivot in a ménage à trois, where cordial relations converge from two opponent vertices, Europe has never decisively influenced the triangular Havana-Brussels-Washington relationship.
Eighteen years of European common position on Cuba confirmed that the limited engagement and symbolic sanctions policy after 2003 reduced European influence in Cuban adaptation to a post-Cold War world. Cuba diversified its foreign relations, to lessen the weight of Europe and Canada as uncomfortable trading and investment partners in the nineties. Havana emphasized strategic affiliations with Venezuela, China and Russia lately. The rise of the Latin American left gave Cuba more space in the developing world through the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. Cuba led the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2013 from the troika of directors serving as a hinge for agreements and dialogues with China, Russia and the BRICS.
What should be the priorities for launching the relationship between the EU and Cuba?
Perfect is enemy of good: There is a window of opportunity for a good agreement that would implicitly replace the common position. Cuba and the European Union must reach it without long delays that would open opportunities for spoilers. The anti-Castro exile intransigent position is weak and concentrated on keeping the American embargo policy. As the first world power, the USA would have normally taken the lead in designing Western policy toward the island but today it has too much noise in its external agenda to prioritize the Cuban issue. With an agreement in the coming months, Cuba and the European Union could take the upper hand over Washington and Miami.
It’s the economy, stupid: Relaunching economic relationship with Europe would be a great boost to Cuba’s reform process. Beyond the immediate material benefits, a Cuba-Europe agreement would have significant spillovers to other international actors and send signals to the rest of the business world, including the USA and Latin America. For Europe, to strengthen trade and investment with Cuba goes beyond accessing an eleven million people market without American companies’ competition. Cuba is a transnational space that can double the number of tourists in a couple of years if American policy changes. Economic integration with a relatively affluent Diaspora that sends remittances of over a billion dollars a year could dramatically increase the purchasing power of Cubans.
In terms of promoting democratic values, Europe could catalyze four factors of political liberalization as an indirect effect of the ongoing economic reforms: 1) the social impact of the economic rise of the non-state sector, including foreign investment, and market mechanisms; 2) the increase of outside influences from pluralistic societies on the Cuban elites from the reciprocal opening “of Cuba to the world and the world to Cuba” as John Paul II requested; 3) The improvement in the standard of living of the population, because when vital needs as food and housing are solved, Cubans will increase their demand for improved governance and participation. This is a population with middle-class education; 4) Activation of intellectuals and business sectors with access to new technologies, social networks and mass media.
The experiences of China and Vietnam show that when Communist leaders launched reforms towards a mixed economy without giving up the one-party monopoly, the best vehicle for the empowerment of civil society against the controlling State were market forces. Political liberalization occurs as an indirect effect from the expansions in travel, expression, plural education, training and social autonomous behaviors freedoms.
Institutionalize political dialogue: Brussels and Havana have important differences in interests, values and foreign policy principles. Such recognition does not mean forgetting the potential for cooperation and that most of the differences are manageable.
Both Havana and Brussels can develop yearly forums on human rights that channel the denunciation roles that each of them has assigned for themselves. If Europe wishes to publicly express its differences with the Cuban political system, establish a dialogue with its civil society, or reject a specific behavior of the Cuban government, it has ways to do it without bitterness. If Cuba wants to be the flagship for the developing world, condemning European economic protectionism or migration practices, it should do it within the framework of the universal periodic review of the Committee of Human Rights or in direct talks with the European Union. If there are cooperation programs with political conditionality, either party may elect without drama to participate or not.
Do not forget the indirect effects in the triangular relationship with Washington: Unlike the USA, European policy has a common ground to share with Cuban state reformists and civil society actors who oppose any regime change foreign imposition. The best Cuban allies for Europe are on the island, not in the intransigent exile. Even the common position is focused on the progressive realization of human rights as result of political opening, the adoption of a market economy and improvement of Cubans’ living standards. Each of these three processes is seen as positive on its own merits.
Cuba and Europe can create cultural, economic, political, and educational spaces with direct implications in the USA and Latin America. A notable example is that of Cuban émigrés in Europe, a sector with significant allegiances to Cuban, European and Cuban-American society. That sector can engage in the Cuban economy without limitations by the American embargo. But many Cubans living overseas have expressed a high level of political insecurity as a barrier to their participation as entrepreneurs in Cuba’s economic reform. A European-Cuban intergovernmental facilitation for the dissipation of these apprehensions would open corporate appetites for investment in their country of origin. Such a development would impact in the United States by strengthening agendas closer to the positions of Cuba and Europe.
On the eve of the Summit of the Americas in 2015, Brussels would provide the Obama Administration with a way to improve relations with Cuba in his last two years in the White House, the time when American presidents have foreign policy initiative at its maximum. A closer Europe-Cuba relationship would also facilitate Raul Castro the possibility of having his own presidential legacy, as the reformer who leaves a sustainable mixed economy to his successors.