West Fails to Sway Cuba on Rights

Times Staff Writer

Canada and Spain invest in oil exploration and beachfront hotels. The United States imposes an economic embargo. Eastern European nations offer up their own success in throwing off communism. Latin America’s leftist leaders, meanwhile, take a collective none-of-our-business posture.

Divergent as they may be, all of these strategies for improving human rights in Cuba have one thing in common: their failure to compel President Fidel Castro to relent on his repression of those who oppose his unraveling revolution.

In his annual assessment of the human rights situation issued this month, Oswaldo Paya, Cuba’s most famous dissident and one of the few not in prison, laments that 2005 marked a return to “the darkest days of intolerance and restriction.”


More than 70 Cubans pushing for democratic reforms remain jailed nearly three years after a crackdown on political dissent. Most Western nations united in protest over the harsh sentences meted out in April 2003, and the international community remains deeply fractured in its pursuit of freedom and democracy for Cubans.

After the crackdown, the European Union’s 25 member states formed a rare alliance with Washington to embrace what was left of the dissident movement in Cuba. They invited activists to diplomatic receptions at embassies in Havana, which spurred angry Cuban officials to boycott. The two-year tiff came to be known as the “Canape Wars.”

In a recent assessment of its Cuba policy, the European Union concluded that its decision last spring to resume diplomatic contacts with the island’s communist leadership had resulted in “no improvements” in the plight of democracy activists.

“Actually, we see some setbacks, with some very harsh measures by the regime against internal dissidence,” said Juan Jose Buitrago, Spain’s political counselor for Latin America in Washington.

Despite that conclusion, Buitrago said neither Madrid nor the broader EU was likely to reverse the June decision to resume official contacts with Havana. “Dialogue is essential at this time,” Buitrago said. “We think after Castro, if we want to have a peaceful and legal transition in Cuba, we need to support those who are in favor of change. We don’t think it’s intelligent or wise to pressure or threaten the current regime.”

Buitrago denied that economic interests were driving Madrid’s pro-engagement policy. Spanish companies are the biggest foreign investors in Cuba’s thriving tourism industry.


“Spain and Cuba have very strong traditional, cultural, actually familial relations,” he said.

The EU’s Eastern European members, which have adopted a more aggressive approach for supporting democratic forces on the island, have provoked a number of diplomatic confrontations in recent months.

In December, Cuba expelled two journalists, a Pole and a Swiss, who had met with foes of Castro. A few days later, it deported two Spanish human rights activists who had filmed a discussion with the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of jailed opposition leaders that had just been awarded the 2005 Sakharov Prize for human rights work. Havana authorities also refused to let the women travel to Strasbourg, France, to accept the award.

Earlier last year, the Cuban government detained European Parliament members in their Havana hotel to prevent them from contacting Castro opponents and infuriated the Prague government by breaking up the Oct. 28 celebration in Havana of the Czech Republic’s National Day. Angered that Cuban opposition figures were invited to the event, officials in Havana forced a hotel to cancel the party at the last minute.

Since then, Czech leaders, including democracy icon and former President Vaclav Havel, have been pushing their EU colleagues to take a tougher stance against Cuba.

“I keep asking the EU ... where is the result of the so-called soft approach to Cuba? Where is that better cultivation of the Cuba regime? Nowhere!” fumed Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda in a TV interview in late November.


Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar says the Czech government uses every opportunity on the world stage to urge Cuba to “harmonize respect for human rights with international standards.”

A Czech diplomat, speaking on condition he not be identified, said Cuba was one of the most contentious issues within the EU. The Prague government, he said, has aligned with Germany, the Netherlands and several other states to continue working with Castro opponents to foster democratic change on the island.

“We don’t intend to tone it down at all,” the diplomat said.

Washington’s hard line against Castro has long distanced the United States from most of the world, as demonstrated each year by overwhelming U.N. votes urging an end to the U.S. economic embargo. In November’s 182-4 vote, only Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau took the U.S. side.

The United States has tightened sanctions against Cuba in each of the last two years, demanding payment in advance for sales of food exempted from the embargo and limiting Cuban Americans’ visits to their homeland to once every three years.

Canada, meanwhile, purchases more than $500 million in goods from Cuba annually, receives more than $1 billion in joint-venture revenue from oil, tourism and mining, and is Cuba’s biggest tourism client, with 500,000 annual visitors. The Ottawa government remains committed to maintaining diplomatic and social contacts with Havana.

“That works better than cutting ties,” said Rejean Beaulieu, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.


Canada nonetheless interacts with opposition groups and has co-sponsored efforts to censure Cuba at the annual U.N. human rights gathering in Geneva.

Mutually beneficial trade and strengthening leftist rule, as well as long-standing taboos on intruding on another nation’s domestic policies, have led most Latin American states to stay mum on the subject of Cuba’s internal repressions. Only Argentina, the birthplace of co-revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, has challenged Castro, with a stream of objections to Havana’s refusal to let a prominent doctor visit her emigre son in Argentina in late 2004.

Leftist Latin American leaders have stood by Castro.

“We have excellent relations with Cuba,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez, who described U.S. policy toward the island as “obsessive.”