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Analysis: EU Sees Red With Cuba

Monday, 16 June 2003 12:00 AM

Septuagenarian musicians such as Ibrahim Ferrer play to packed theatres across the continent, new Cuban bars and eateries continue to spring up in European capitals, and more and more Europeans choose to spend their holidays lapping up Havana's old-world charm and the Caribbean coast's new-world tourist facilities.

On the economic level, relations are pretty rosy too. The European Union is the island's most important trading partner and source of overseas investment. It is also the communist state's biggest development aid donor, providing almost 70 percent of total hand-outs.

But when it comes to politics, relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse in recent weeks.

On June 5, the EU's 15 member states -- along with the 13 countries queuing up to join the bloc -- expressed their indignation at Havana's decision to sentence 75 dissidents to lengthy jail sentences and slap the death penalty on three hijackers.

The Brussels-based body described the actions as "deplorable" and said it was "deeply concerned about the continuing flagrant violation of human rights and of fundamental freedoms of members of the Cuban opposition and of independent journalists."

In a significant hardening of the EU's stance, foreign ministers decided to limit high-level governmental visits to the island, downgrade member states' participation in cultural events, invite Cuban dissidents to national celebrations in European embassies, and take a second look at EU-Cuban relations in July.

Havana's response was fast and furious.

In a four-hour TV address to the nation Wednesday night, President Fidel Castro blamed Spain and Italy for driving through the EU's hard-line position. He described Spanish Premier Jose-Maria Aznar as a "little Fuhrer with a moustache and Nazi-fascist ideology" and dubbed Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi a "clown" and a "fool."

In characteristically colorful language, the Cuban dictator, who has ruled the Caribbean country for almost 45 years, said the EU declaration "must have been written in a drunken state, if not with alcohol, in a state of Eurocentric drunkenness."

The following day, a fatigue-clad Castro lead tens of thousands of militants on a protest march outside the Spanish embassy in Havana, with brother Raul heading a similar demonstration outside the Italian embassy.

And the Cuban regime has backed up its harsh words with actions.

For the second time, it has withdrawn its application to join the African Caribbean and Pacific grouping, which unites the EU with over 70 of its former colonies. Also, on Sunday, the government announced it was taking control of the Spanish cultural center in Havana, which it alleged was being used for "subversive activities."

Castro's belligerent reaction has shocked many European governments.

In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry called in Cuban Ambassador Maria de Los Angeles Florez Prida to express its "deep indignation caused by offensive expressions used by President Fidel Castro regarding the Italian premier."

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Diego de Ojeda told United Press International: "This crisis was created by Cuba and it knows very well how to get out of it -- by reinstating its moratorium on the death penalty and by demonstrating a minimum degree of respect for human rights."

But if the EU's more muscular stance has irritated Havana -- which accuses the bloc of kowtowing to its arch enemy the United States -- it has delighted Washington.

At a meeting of North and South American states June 8, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the EU initiative, telling reporters that "the rest of the world is now starting to take note" of Castro's "crackdown."

Powell said he would raise the subject of how to help Cuban dissidents at a summit with the EU later this month and hinted that the two powers were aiming to draw up a common strategy towards Cuba.

America's anti-Castro lobby would like the EU to puts its money where its mouth is regarding Havana.

"If the EU is going to get tough on Cuba, they've got to cut off commercial transactions as well," urged Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

This is about as likely to happen as Castro taking his grand-children for a weekend jaunt to Disney World.

For a start, EU countries have huge economic interests in Cuba. Between 1990-98, European firms invested $640 million in the country -- largely in the burgeoning tourism sector. Spanish exports alone account for more trade than all Latin American states together.

Secondly, the EU believes Washington's sanctions have backfired spectacularly.

In a recent speech, commission official Fraser Cameron said: "American policy towards Cuba is counterproductive and merely serves to strengthen Castro, who uses anti-Americanism to consolidate control."

Brussels has traditionally favored a more soft approach than the United States -- engaging Havana in dialogue while gently chiding its human rights record.

Says Ojeda: "The EU supports a peaceful but gradual transition in Cuba towards a more democratic, free market regime."

In other words, don't expect the EU to send mercenaries or boxes of exploding cigars to get rid of Castro, but do expect the 15-member bloc to be more assertive in pushing for a regime change.

In the past, many European governments -- especially those of a left-wing persuasion -- were seduced by Castro's brand of "tropical socialism" and were reluctant to condemn Cuba as stridently as other one-party states such as Burma/Myanmar.

But with the majority of European states now run by center-right governments, the EU has finally run out of patience with Castro and come to the conclusion that a nasty dictator who mixes a fine mojito and dons a Yankees baseball cap is still a nasty dictator.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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Monday, 16 June 2003 12:00 AM
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