The Seventh Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party that took place between 16th and 19th April of this year, once again revealed that the regime’s vocation for change and democratic openness is, quite frankly, non-existent. Last year the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented some 8,616 detentions for political reasons, a figure already surpassed in 2016 during the largest wave of repressive measures since the Black Spring of 2003. At present, some 93 political prisoners continue behind bars in Cuban prisons. The 2015/16 Report from Amnesty International expressly mentions the severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and circulation, and it refers to thousands of cases of harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals who are critical of the Government, especially during the visits undertaken by Barack Obama and His Holiness Pope Francis, as well as over the days following the death of Fidel Castro. All organised groups of dissidents without exception have been subject to this harassment, as witnessed by the testimonies of the Ladies in White, the Cuban Patriotic Union and the Christian Liberation Movement, not to mention the cases of assault suffered by dissidents such as Eduardo Cardet, Guillermo Fariñas and Reinaldo Escobar. Reporters Sans Frontières branded Fidel Castro a “predator of press freedom” in a press release issued to mark his death, placing Cuba in 171st place out of 180 countries throughout the world in its World Press Freedom Index, two places lower than the year before. An RTVE correspondent was even detained against his will just a few days ago. All news reports confirm the fact that the harassment, persecution and arbitrary detentions continue.
Yesterday, on Sunday, some ten members of the Cuban Patriotic Union in the cities of Havana, Santiago, Palma Soriano and Palmarito de Canto were arrested and their homes razed to the ground. The detainees included the General Coordinator of UNPACU, José Daniel Ferrer García, who was cautioned for a series of alleged crimes of public disorder, contempt of court, attempted coup and espionage before being released.
It is within this context, which is not immediately evident, but which reflects the totalitarian and repressive essence of Castro’s Cuba, that the European Union has finally signed the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement with Cuba. The EU is following in the wake of the Obama Administration and its policy of normalising diplomatic relations with Havana. In both cases, a decision has been made to promote diplomatic, economic and trade relations whilst avoiding the issues of democratic progress and respect for human rights. Neither in the text of the new agreement nor in the statements made by the High Representative and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, during the signing ceremony, is there any mention of the repression that all Cubans have suffered, and especially that suffered by dissidents and prisoners of conscience who began to see the doors of European embassies in Havana slam shut in 2007. Today these dissidents have been effectively abandoned to their fate by Europe’s leading democracies. The text is so aseptic that it is perfectly interchangeable with the EU’s agreements with any other fully democratic country. The policy of commitment to human rights that has been followed since 1996 has therefore been abandoned in favour or prioritising trade and economic relations, whose potential under a Communist regime is undoubtedly much overrated. A likely outcome is that, by preferring trade to democracy, neither the one nor the other is finally achieved. In Cuba there are no changes that can be supported within a cooperation framework such as that which has been signed, whilst the euphemism that is bandied about and speaks of “timid reforms” is just that, a way of denying the reality. We should not be surprised that the Cuban Chancellor expressed his satisfaction during the ceremony on behalf of a regime that urgently needs to find additional rafts to stay afloat following the collapse of the Chavez regime in Venezuela.
In spite of all the warning signs and all the evidence pointing to the lack of change in Cuba, the European Union and its Member States have considered it appropriate to abolish their Common Position and omit any demands regarding progress under the headings of democracy and human rights. Whether you like it or not, this is clearly a political triumph for the Castro dictatorship, which, far from promoting reform, has legitimised its entrenched and unchanging position. What is more, the new agreement is tributary to the agreement promoted a few months ago by Barack Obama, which could now be revised by the Trump Administration. We cannot object to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, in the same way in which the Spain and the EU’s rejection of the extra-territorial application of US legislation to Cuba is also clear and reasonable. However, we should point out that, after the initial euphoria, the only visible result of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has been an increase in the number of US tourists on the island (136,913 over the first half of 2016, compared to 76,183 the previous year) and a doubling of the average price of hotel accommodation in Cuba, which, in turn, seems to have led to a drop in demand during the second half of the year, as reflected by the fact that American Airlines has just announced that it will reduce its thirteen daily flights to ten. Whatever the case may be, this wave of American tourists is leaving a considerable amount of money on the island, mainly in the hands of the regime, which maintains an iron grip on the economy. Meanwhile, not only has zero progress been made in the democratic realm, but the leading organisations for the defence of human rights have denounced a rising wave of repression throughout the year 2016. Neither do the two rounds of Dialogue on Human Rights between the EU and Cuba or the successive diplomatic visits seem to have made the slightest difference in this respect.
Dissidents and promoters of freedom must recognise the fact that they are completely alone on the international diplomatic front. They must also be looking in the mirror of the events that have taken place in Venezuela, where talks between the opposition groups brought together in the Democratic Unity Roundtable has enabled them to coordinate their opposition measures in response to the rabid drift of the Chavez regime, effectively offering the Venezuelan people a democratic option for the future. Cuban dissidents both on the island and outside must now make a similar effort to integrate and unite in order to build alliances and be able to present themselves to the Cuban people with a single voice, one that gives them a legitimate right to promote democratic change, especially in the eyes of the international community.
As Human Rights Watch declared in one of its latest reports on Cuba, “engagement without international pressure is unlikely to bring change”. The agreement with the EU, although it enters into force in matters that come under EU authority, must still be ratified by the Member States. This ratification process should not be divorced from real, tangible and rapid changes that must take place on the island under the heading of respect for rights and freedoms, as well as respect for channels of democratic political expression. If these changes do not happen without delay, the parliaments of the Union’s Member Countries, through their democratic majorities, should suspend any ratification of the agreement. Otherwise, they will simply be shoring up an oppressive regime that is only prepared to change the bare minimum required for everything to stay as it is.