MADRID — Spain's announcement that it will seek a major improvement in European ties with Cuba's dictatorship once it takes over the presidency of the 27-country European Union on Jan. 1 is bad news not only for pro-democracy activists on the island, but also for oppositionists in several other authoritarian-ruled Latin American countries.
During a 48-hour visit to Cuba earlier this week, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said that Spain will take advantage of its upcoming six-month presidency of the European Union to try to change the group's "common stand" toward Cuba, in place since 1996. Under the policy, EU members are expected to link their economic ties with Cuba to signs of a political opening on the island.
Moratinos, who refused to meet with any dissidents during his trip to Cuba, also said that Spain will try to get the European Union to renew economic aid to Cuba, or at least to include the island in European Union foreign aid programs for the Caribbean, according to Spanish press reports.
The European Union's "common stand" on Cuba includes measures such as recommending that EU members invite Cuban dissidents as well as Cuban officials to national holiday parties at their embassies in Havana. This is anathema to Cuba's military regime, which describes all oppositionists as "U.S. mercenaries."
While visiting Spain this week, I was surprised to hear from both supporters and critics of Spain's Socialist Party government that Spain may succeed in at least partially softening the EU "common stand" on Cuba.
Gustavo de Aristegui, the opposition center-right People's Party's minority leader in the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations, told me that Spain is likely to prevail in part because other Western European countries are likely to defer to it the EU's relations with Latin America, considering Spain's historic ties with the region. "Spain is a European Union authority when it comes to Latin America, and most Western European countries will do what Spain says," De Aristegui said.
In addition, several former Soviet-bloc Central and Eastern European countries that in recent years had led Europe's criticism of the Cuban regime are now politically weaker because of their economic and political troubles.
The Czech Republic, a supporter of human rights and democracy in Cuba, has lost credibility within Europe in recent months because of Czech President Vaclav Klaus' efforts to delay the Lisbon treaty aimed at strengthening Europe's political integration, he said.
Other Spanish politicians and diplomats told me that Sweden, Germany and Great Britain may resist a change in the EU's "common stand" on Cuba, but may cave in to some of Spain's demands. The EU may end up dropping its policy of explicit support for dissidents at Spain's request, but stop short of renewing economic aid to the island, they say.
Why is Spain embracing a dictatorship led by men in their 70s and 80s? In an interview two years ago, after a similar trip to Cuba in which he also abstained from meeting with peaceful oppositionists, Moratinos told me that Spain was "opening a new way, a new mechanism of dialogue, which is producing results."
This week, Moratinos cited the same argument when Cuba released one of more than 200 political prisoners and a Spanish businessman who had been arrested a month ago on fraud charges. Most Spanish analysts are skeptical of Moratinos' claims, noting that the Spanish government is most likely courting the Cuban regime for domestic political reasons — maintaining the support of Spain's old-guard left and getting Cuba's help to keep Spanish radical leftist groups in check.
My opinion: Spain's policy of turning its back to Cuba's peaceful opposition is a step back not only from Spain's previous conservative government but from former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, who — as a former activist against a dictatorship himself — tried to keep maintain relations with Cuba's peaceful opposition during his 1982-1996 term in office.
What message is Spain sending to the leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries whose leaders are suppressing fundamental freedoms and harassing those who disagree? It seems to be: Go ahead; you won't find any consequences for your actions.
Spain's one-track Cuba policy will erode this country's reputation in Latin America as a political and economic role model and as a bridge between Latin Americans who can't get along because of political conflicts in their own countries.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.