Efforts to engage Cuba founder over death of dissident

The death of a Cuban political prisoner and the prolonged jailing of a U.S. citizen in Havana appear to have cast a dark cloud over U.S. and Spanish government efforts to engage Raul Castro's government.

"We still believe engagement is the right way, but the death of Orlando Zapata was a punch to the gut,'' said an aide to a U.S. Democratic congressman who favors easing sanctions on Cuba.

"There's no doubt this incident will put a very important, if not formidable, obstacle'' in the way of Spain's efforts, said Joaquin Roy, a University of Miami expert on European Union issues.

The U.S. and Spanish efforts were not faring well even before the Dec. 3 arrest of U.S. government contractor Alan P. Gross and the Feb. 23 death of Zapata, who starved himself to death to protest prison conditions.

Castro had made no significant counter-gestures after President Barack Obama lifted or eased several sanctions on Cuba last year. A bill before Congress allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba appeared to have stalled, and was recently reworked as part of an agriculture bill.

At the EU, former communist-ruled nations were opposing the campaign by Spain's socialist government to persuade the regional body to abandon its Common Position on Cuba, which essentially conditions EU relations on Cuba's human rights record.

But the Zapata and Gross cases undermined the argument that since the Cuban government has made no concessions, the United States and EU should take unilateral steps to engage with the Cuban people, said sanctions supporters. They also raised the question of whether Cuba was intentionally trying to torpedo the U.S. and EU efforts at rapprochement.

"There's proof that each time we try to promote an increased free flow of people and information, the Castro regime digs in,'' the EFE news agency quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as telling Congress last week.

"The Cuban government has been using the issue of the Common Position to justify, or invent, that there's an aggressive attitude toward Cuba by the EU and Spain,'' said the Spanish-born Roy. "It's the same logic as the U.S. embargo. I have never believed that Cuba truly wants the embargo to end.''

In the U.S. Congress, Cuba's detention of Gross since Dec. 3 -- without charges -- for delivering satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups has dealt a blow to the efforts to ease sanctions on Cuba, several knowledgeable aides said.

"The tipping point on Cuba is the Gross issue. It's a hot potato,'' said a senior staffer to a senator who favors lifting travel restrictions.

"As bad as the Zapata case is, the Gross issue is the one that has a greater reach here.''

Even Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who opposes the U.S. ban on tourist travel to Cuba, blasted Cuba's handling of the Zapata case, saying it ``should have intervened earlier to prevent this tragedy. His death is on their conscience.''

"First Gross and now this. The timing could not be worse,'' said a top aide to a House Democrat who favors lifting all sanctions on Cuba.

The congressional staffers and aides all requested anonymity because they were not authorized to make public comments on the issue.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee, said the Zapata case will ``make it very difficult for those who want to engage unconditionally with the Cuban regime.''

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