Despite countless mutually reassuring statements and declarations of good will, a rather euphemistic narrative of “vital exchange of viewpoints” and “useful confrontation of experiences” dominates commentary after the fourth round of bilateral talks between the E.U. and Cuba. Human rights and political liberties continue to be the bones of contention.
The two-day roundtable session, held in Brussels on June 16-17 in the direct aftermath of the biennial E.U.-CELAC summit, were meant to seal the long-awaited rapprochement between Havana and the E.U., already presented as a done deal by many.
In March of this year, the bloc’s head of diplomacy, Italian Federica Mogherini, visited Cuba in the first ever such visit by a high-profile representative of Brussels. Mogherini’s visit, although largely symbolic in nature, capped a year of diplomatic efforts to bring Cuba back on the path of dialogue with the European bloc.
Mutual relations between the two parties were dramatically suspended in 2003, when the then-president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, put them on ice in reaction to a government-led crackdown on several journalists and opposition leaders on the island. Since then, the topic of human rights protection in Cuba has become a leitmotif of numerous public diplomacy initiatives run by a handful of European countries, such as Spain, Poland and Sweden.
Perhaps the greatest show of European discontent with Havana’s policy on dissidents manifested itself by means of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — an annual peace prize awarded by the European Parliament to the world’s most oppressed freedom-fighting activists and organizations. The parliament has twice honored anti-Castro nominees, including the 2005 award for the Damas de Blanco group and the 2009 distinction given to dissident Guillermo Fariñas Hernández.
A slow turn toward rapprochement started in February 2014, when the E.U. prepared a working paper on bilateral relations with Cuba, thus laying foundations for a future public diplomacy directive on the matter. Both delegations met in Havana and continued to exchange views on regular basis — the June meeting was the fourth of its kind.
To avoid an immediate deadlock, but also in order to respond to the gradual economic opening of the island, topics such as trade agreements and cooperation between industries were added to the agenda.
Talks moved up a gear in 2015, with Mogherini visiting Havana, and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez crossing the Atlantic three times this year to visit Rome, Brussels and Paris.
Given the mutual efforts, hopes were high for a breakthrough to come in the Monday meeting. although both delegations agreed that significant advancements were made in terms of trade accords, political dialogue remains unsettled.
The full framework on economic assistance is said to be nearing completion, thus allowing the parties to hope that they may still be able to meet the previously announced deadline of December 2015. The talks’ chapter on cooperation also saw significant progress, but E.U. negotiators remain dissatisfied over political issues and human rights protection.
Interestingly, a rather different, more rose-colored rhetoric was heard from the Cuban side. The government’s official news outlet, Agencia Cubana de Noticias, praised the E.U. for its willingness to welcome Cuba back aboard the international community, contrary to the actions of Washington, criticized by ACN for its sluggish approach to U.S.-Cuban rapprochement. Media on the island emphasized the importance of independent trade actions undertaken by Europe-based enterprises, such as investments in the foodstuff sector, pledged by Spain’s Hotelsa Alimentación.
Independent of the parties’ perception of the talks, the political part of the agenda remains a potential impediment for full-scale bilateral agreement. Such a document, a first in the history of E.U.-Cuban relations, is set to be completed by the year’s end. Further negotiations will follow, starting in September, but with little time left, human rights issues and matters of political dissidence need to at least find common ground, otherwise Havana will remain an E.U. priority only in terms of anti-Castro freedom awards.