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Column

Cuban repression pulls U.S., EU closer

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2003

The United States and Europe disagree about many things, but Fidel Castro's latest acts of repression appear to have brought them closer than ever over Cuba policy.

In protest over a recent crackdown on the island's dissidents, the European Union on Thursday announced unprecedented diplomatic sanctions against Cuba.

In a sternly worded diplomatic statement, Brussels criticized what it called the "deplorable actions," of the Castro government, adding that 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."

The diplomatic note referred to the recent arrests of 75 dissidents and journalists, and the execution of three men who tried to hijack a passenger ferry to the United States. Among a series of diplomatic sanctions approved by the 15-nation body, the EU said it would limit high-level visits to the island in the future, as well as reduce the profile of EU diplomats at cultural events in Cuba. In a further slap, Brussels said it would increase its invitations for Cuban dissidents to attend EU events.

The EU's announcement follows a biting human rights report by Amnesty International that listed 75 jailed dissidents as "prisoners of conscience." The EU has called for their immediate release, as well as guarantees that the prisoners are fairly treated in jail. Relatives of some of the prisoners have complained that they are being held in solitary confinement, in damp, rat-infested cells.

"The EU, mindful of increasing reports about poor detention conditions of prisoners with serious health problems, appeals to the Cuban authorities that, in the meantime, the prisoners do not suffer unduly and are not exposed to inhumane treatment," the EU said in a statement.

Such language is music to Washington's ears. The United States has for years been trying to persuade Europe to join its policy of political and economic isolation of Castro's one-party rule. The EU is Cuba's largest trading partner and foreign investor.

But the sanctions are of limited value and they do not apply to private European companies. Unlike the United States, the EU does not have any embargo on private business dealings with Cuba.

While the sanctions are unlikely to affect current trade investment in the island, it may deter other companies from doing business there. There are already strong signs that trade with Europe is down. Ironically, that is largely due to an amendment to the embargo that now allows Cuba to buy agricultural products from the United States, as long as payment is made in cash.

The sanctions have also killed off any notion of improved bilateral ties between Europe and Cuba. Earlier this year, the EU announced plans to hold talks with Cuba over admitting the island to the Cotonou agreement, which offers aid to former European colonies. Cuba continues to stand out as the only country in Latin America that does not have a bilateral cooperation agreement with the EU.

"What they are saying with this is, "Don't call us, we'll call you,' " says Joaquin Roy, director of the European Union Center at the University of Miami.

However, while the EU may have a common position on Cuba, this does not mean that individual member countries will abide by it. While the EU has no cooperation agreement with Cuba, several of its members do, including Britain, Spain and France. They have given no indication so far that these will be canceled.

Instead, they prefer to keep the door open, even if it's now been reduced only to a crack.

- David Adams may be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com

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