Prague, 3 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - At Spain's initiative and to the United States' delight, the European Union (EU) has substantially toughened its stance toward Cuba by pledging collectively for the first time to pressure the country to respect human rights.
Long reluctant to criticize the island's one-party communist government, the EU yesterday formally adopted the new policy at a meeting of its finance ministers in Brussels. The resolution on Cuba was passed unanimously and without debate, in effect a rubber stamp for a text whose details were agreed upon last week by all 15 EU member states.
The text declares that the EU will now seek opportunities, both public and private, of reminding Cuban authorities of their "fundamental responsibilities on human rights, in particular freedom of speech and association." It also says that the Union intends to intensify talks with all sectors of Cuban society "to promote respect for human rights and real progress toward pluralist democracy."
The resolution noted Cuba's recent tentative economic opening and said that the EU strongly wanted to be a partner in this "progressive and irreversible" trend. But it directly linked future EU economic cooperation with Cuba to improvements in human-rights implementation. The resolution said that EU ministers would review Cuba's human-rights record in six months.
The change in EU policy came a week after Cuba had accused Spain of meddling in its internal affairs and withdrew its official approval of a new Spanish ambassador to Havana. That action followed repeated criticism of Cuba's political system by Spain's new conservative government. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has publicly called Cuban leader Fidel Castro a "dictator."
Spain, which ruled the island until the turn of the century, was Cuba's closest friend in Europe until its long-governing Socialists lost elections to Aznar earlier this year. Spain still has the largest share of foreign investments in Cuba. But for the past several weeks, Madrid has strongly pressured its EU partners to adopt a tougher line toward Castro.
So has Washington. U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, a former ambassador to the EU, has pushed for the change in several trips to Brussels in recent months.
Yesterday, the United States warmly commended the EU for its new tough stance on Cuba and hinted that President Bill Clinton will continue to wave penalties against foreign firms that do business with the country -- a long-standing bone of contention with EU nations. A formal statement issued by the State Department welcomed what it called "this important change from words to action by the European Union." It said that the new policy "clearly demonstrates the EU's commitment to work in a more active, coordinated fashion toward the common goal of promoting a peaceful democratic transition in Cuba."
The United States and the EU have been at loggerheads over Cuba for much of this year. In the Spring, after Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian aircraft, the Congress passed the Helms-Burton act -- named after its congressional sponsors -- which imposes penalties on foreign firms using nationalized property in Cuba that formerly belonged to U.S. citizens. A few months later, in an attempt to soften the law, Clinton waived for six months a major provision allowing U.S. citizens to sue such companies in American courts. The President has to decide by January 16 whether to continue the waiver for another six months.
EU nations had vigorously protested that the Holms-Burton act sought to apply U.S. law beyond U.S. territory. Last month, they succeeded in getting the World Trade Organization to study the validity of the legislation.
But after the EU's new Cuban policy was announced yesterday, Washington all but explicitly confirmed that a trade-off had been negotiated with Brussels. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the EU's statement would "certainly be a factor" in Clinton's decision on extending the waver. At the same time, Burns went out of his way to recognize that "the EU's approach toward Cuba is different from (the U.S.') and that the EU will continue to act independently." EU members have been complaining for months about the United States "imposing its will on others."
In Brussels, EU officials -- who requested anonymity -- gave the credit for what they called "an ideal compromise" to Undersecretary Eizenstat. In telephone chats with our correspondent today, the officials said that Eizenstat's "quiet but effective diplomacy had succeeded in defusing a nasty quarrel" between the United States and the EU.