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EU: Baffled By Castro Attacks, Brussels Threatens To Review Its Cuban Policy

Repeated verbal attacks by Cuban President Fidel Castro on the European Union and its individual leaders may soon force Brussels to carry out the threat made earlier this month to "review" its policy of constructive engagement with the communist nation. Castro appears to have taken issue with recent EU criticism of Havana's renewed crackdown on dissidents and the execution of three hijackers this spring.

Brussels, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials are baffled at the virulence with which Cuban leader Fidel Castro has attacked the bloc's policies and its leaders in recent weeks.

The EU has for years sought what it terms "constructive engagement" with the island nation, often at the risk of angering the United States. Washington considers Cuba a rogue state and has for four decades enforced tough economic sanctions against it.

Yet, Castro is now spurning all EU attempts at rapprochement. He said in a speech last weekend that a "basic feeling of dignity" impels Cuba to refuse all aid from the EU as long as the bloc imposes political conditions on the country.

Castro was referring to persistent EU criticism of Cuba's human rights record after mass arrests of dissidents in March, and the execution of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to escape to the United States in April. The crackdown came weeks after the EU had opened a new office in Havana and the European Commission had indicated it supports Cuba's membership in the Cotonou Agreement. That agreement underpins contractual relations between the EU and Caribbean, African, and Pacific countries.

The European Commission issued a statement on 27 July saying it "regrets" Castro's comments. Yesterday, a commission spokesman, Jean-Charles Ellerman-Kingombe, told RFE/RL that the EU has still received no formal confirmation of Cuba's intentions in the wake of Castro's speech.

"We haven't had any formal contacts with the Cuban authorities, and as long as we don't have formal detailed formulation of their intentions vis-a-vis our cooperation, there is nothing we can do. We have stated that our position is that we would like to continue our cooperation, but again, it all depends on the intentions of the Cuban authorities," Ellerman-Kingombe said.

Castro's ire was in the first instance provoked by a declaration adopted by the EU's then-Greek Presidency in June announcing token sanctions against Cuba. The statement deplored the executions, the "flagrant" violations of the rights of Cuba's dissidents and journalists, and the dismal detention conditions suffered by the country's political prisoners.

As long as the situation does not improve, the statement said, the EU will limit high-level visits to Cuba and reduce the profile of member states' participation in cultural events. Aside from these largely symbolic measures, the statement also warned Cuba it was putting ties to the EU at risk.

Castro responded by calling the sanctions "gross and insolent," conceived in a "state of drunkenness." He also called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi "fascists" and "bandits." Traditionally, both Italy and Spain have had relatively close ties with Cuba, and both had sharply criticized Havana for the spring crackdown.

An EU foreign ministers' meeting last week said the "vilification" of EU leaders was "unacceptable." It also said the EU would bring forward the review of its common policy on Cuba from its scheduled December date.

In the latest installment of the tit-for-tat recriminations, Castro on 26 July renounced EU aid -- which has amounted to 150 million euros ($171 million) since 1993. Castro said the EU had become incapable of "constructive exchange." He criticized the bloc's enlargement, saying it would be a "Trojan horse," admitting countries who admire the United States and hate Cuba for its successes.

It bears noting that the EU is the biggest investor in Cuba, and 800,000 of the 1.7 million tourists visiting the island nation annually hail from Europe.

Ellerman-Kingombe said yesterday that although the row has been escalating for months, the EU still hopes both sides can return to normal political dialogue. "The commission and I think the EU as a whole [has] not hidden [its] disappointment this spring. We've issued a number of declarations condemning human rights violations, et cetera. But nevertheless -- and this was restated on Monday [28 July] in a [council of EU foreign ministers'] conclusion -- we still believe that the way ahead is political dialogue with Cuba, and in that context we also feel there is a need to continue development cooperation aiming at the promotion of civil rights [and] an opening of the economy," Ellerman-Kingombe said.

The crisis in EU-Cuba relations follows closely on the heels of the cooling of EU-Iranian ties. Both regimes are regarded as rogue states by Washington, but in this instance charges of the EU "toadying up" to the United States appear misplaced. The spring crackdown in Cuba came as a major surprise not only to the EU. The global human rights watchdog group Amnesty International noted in a press release in April that "over the last four weeks, Cuba has reversed significant human rights progress made over a period of years."

However, if Castro continues to antagonize the EU, the bloc will have little choice but to team up with the United States in trying to force changes. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in early June that "joint" EU-U.S. measures could be in the offing, but he did not offer any details.