Human rights dialogue Cuba-EU

Chairwoman Hautala took part in seminar organized by Lech Walesa Institute, concerning the Future of the Eu’s policy towards Cuba on 13 January. In her speech she noted that it is certainly not a new issue to discuss the future of EU’s policy toward Cuba. [:]Since the adoption of the Common Position on 2 December 1996, the policy has been reviewed every year, and on numerous occasions, discussions have been rather intense on also changing the Common Position as such, not the least back in 2007, when a decision on opening up a political dialogue was taken, and in 2008, when the special measures where finally lifted, not without criticism from several political groups within the European Parliament.

In 2009, declarations were made, both from the EU side, by i.e. Louis Michel and Catherine Ashton, as well as from the Cuban authorities, asking for a revision of the current situation. “The EU Common Position on Cuba hinders the normalization of relations with Havana”, said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who described the measure maintained by the EU since 1996 as “obsolete “.


She noted that the issue is on our agenda today mainly as a consequence of the clear statements by the Spanish Government, currently holding the Presidency of the European Union, of their aim for a different relationship with Cuba to be achieved during their term. Prime Minister Zapatero said indeed in a press conference last week presenting his Presidency, that Cuba would not be a priority issue, and that he did not expect any controversy. Previous declarations have clearly shown that the Spanish Government intends to raise this issue. In 2005 it had managed to achieve a freezing of the special measures, which that had been introduced after the so-called Black Spring in 2003, when so many of the dissidents were put in prison.


Policies and positions can of course change over time, she noted. Sometimes a clear stance, despite consequences on bilateral relations, may be the best option. Sometimes, a more dialogue oriented approach aiming for major engagement might be more effective, even if the government is far from democratic. As an example, EU is fine-tuning its policy towards Belarus, trying to engage more with the country and draw it out of isolation. While this approach has not been completely uncontroversial, there seems to be quite big support for it.


Something similar is now proposed for Cuba. “Isolation does not make the Cubans to take the steps in right direction” some say. Others are less explicit on their motives. But whatever the approach, it cannot be an excuse to stop talking about democracy and human rights, Chairwoman stressed.


The Cuban authorities nearly always reject any discussion on human rights issues, considering this to be interference into internal affairs. This was for example the clear answer when we invited the Cuban Ambassador to the Sub-Committee in 2008, to discuss the decision by the Council to lift the special measures. The greatness of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is, however precisely that it declares human rights to be universal, same for all, irrespectively on where we live, and their respect could therefore not be considered to be an internal affair, but a responsibility for us all.


The Common Position as it stands today is clear on democracy on human rights. In the first article, it says that “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. It also underlines the importance of respect for and the promotion of different human rights, and the role of EU in this regard, such as freedom of assembly and of speech.


The Council conclusions adopted in 2008 as well as in 2009, have also been very outspoken, urging for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, and calling on the Cuban Government to grant freedom of information and expression, including access to the Internet to the Cuban people, among other things.


If the EU is to stand by its commitment of democracy and human rights to be guiding principles for its external action, the EU will of course have to continue to raise these issues. A revised policy approach should not mean that we give less importance to human rights. And if the EU is to live up to its commitments expressed in the Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, it will be obliged to continue meeting human rights defenders on a regular basis, and should be able to meet with the peaceful pro-democracy opposition, also during high level visits to the country.


Chairwoman also explained that the European Parliament has been very clear in its support for a pluralistic and democratic Cuba, supporting change from within, by giving the most visible recognition we have, the Sakharov Prize, twice to Cuban laureates. When Oswaldo Payá was awarded the Sakharov Prize in 2002, it was mainly because of his efforts to promote the Varela-project, a campaign asking for a national referendum to change the Cuban constitution. As you know, many of those who were imprisoned in 2003 were active in this campaign, and their wives and other female relatives, later received the prize in 2005 for their courage while requesting the release of all political prisoners. As MEPs, we therefore have a special obligation to follow the situation of the laureates, and we surely do.


During the last years, some spaces for public debate have opened up, with a small possibility to discuss the every day life of Cubans, through blogs like the one of Yoani Sánchez, or with at least some discussions on policy choices affecting different economic sectors. But one step forward has very often been accompanied with setbacks. As soon as Yoani Sánchez has wanted to do a more public manifestation, she has been harassed, even beaten. Some prisoners have been conditionally released, normally for health reasons, but others have also been arrested. A very restricted access to mobile phones, under state control, is now possible, but if you give out phones to civil society organisations, you can be arrested, as the example with the US cooperation agent shows. And if, as a foreigner, you are known as a critical voice, you might not be able to visit the island, as our colleague Luís Yañez-Barnuevo from the governing party in Spain and Chairman of the Conference of Delegation Chairs experienced this Christmas, when he was not let in to Cuba, where he had planned to stay for holidays together with his wife.


But with the major economic challenge Cuba is now facing, on top of the crisis the country has been through almost since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation might change quickly, she warned.


Chairwoman concluded by noting that the future of EU’s policy towards Cuba might look different from the one we know now, but as expressed in the treaty, respect for human rights should still be a guiding principle for all external relations. “It is possible that changes in the EU’s approach towards Cuba could be beneficiary for the ultimate objective, even if the Common Position, if you read it through, is still highly relevant. But engagement should never be at the cost of human rights, or of human rights defenders,” she stressed.