A New Momentum for the EU-Cuba Relationship?

Global Centre Stage

Over the past five months, Cuba has become the most courted country in the hemisphere and enjoys a specific momentum with the European Union, the United States, and Latin American partners all fighting for its almost virgin market and the reestablishment of good relations with its government, write Clément Doleac and Lucas Gardenal, as they analyse the most recent visit of EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini

On March 24, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met Cuban President Raul Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in La Havana, Cuba.1 On her way back to Brussels, Mogherini declared she hoped the European Union and Cuba “will be able to sign an agreement [for a new frame for the bilateral relationship] by the end of 2015”. Considering the Cuban context, such a short deadline seems ambitious, and rushing it might be counterproductive. North American negotiators have already experienced the ineffectiveness of such a strategy in Cuba by failing to re-open embassies before the Summit of the Americas in Panama, as openly stated before. This example might show how change will go in Cuba, “without a pause but slowly”, using President Castro’s leitmotiv. EU’s diplomats openly advised “a lot of patience” to their American counterparts in their negotiations with Cuba2. While Cuba’s negotiators are aware that their “window of opportunity” with their northern neighbour might change at the next presidential election; they are determined to impose their rhythm and not be overwhelmed by the unprecedented “diplomatic ballet” that followed the December 17 announcement.

Indeed, since Obama's and Castro's speeches, Cuban MINREX (foreign office) has had to manage a succession of diplomatic and business delegations from a range of countries (US, Turkey, France, South Korea, China, Norway, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Russia, India, Kuwait, Japan, North Korea, Uruguay, etc.), several negotiation rounds with the US and the EU, and important Summit delegations, such as one for the Summit of the

Americas in Panama and the CELAC summit in Costa Rica. It was for the first time in half a century that Cuba was seated with all other hemispheric governments, including Canada and the United States.

Unprecedented Momentum

There are more visits to come, including the visit of French President Francois Hollande, historically the first of its kind, on May 11. Over the past five months, Cuban authorities have been courted extensively in the hemisphere and enjoy a specific momentum with the European Union, the United States, and Latin American partners all fighting for the country’s almost virgin market and for the reestablishment of good relations with its government.

In this context, Mogherini’s visit, the highest-ranking EU official to come to Cuba in several years, was considered a success according to Cuban diplomatic standards and compared with the failed visit of the Spanish Foreign Minister last November. Even though Mogherini had to share the front page of Cuba’s official newspaper with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also visiting Cuba the same day, she was received by Cuba’s highest authorities.

Besides President Castro and Foreign Minister Rodriguez, her visit also included meetings with Cuban officials such as the Vice President and Economy Minister, Trade and Investment Minister, and the Cuban National Assembly President. Finally, she also managed to balance her agenda by meeting Cuban civil society members, such as Havana Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, and famous opponents of the Castro government such as blogger Yoani Sachez.

Talks between the EU and Cuba have been in progress for years since the European Union restarted its cooperation with the country in 2008. But these talks acquired speed in 2014 when the negotiation mandate was adopted and the first rounds of negotiations were held in April 2014, even before the US announcement. After several rounds of negotiations, talks appeared to be moving smoothly on cooperation issues, but sensitive subjects such as trade, political dialogue, and human rights are yet to be discussed. Mogherini’s approach seems to have pleased the Cubans compared to the previous Ashton administration, and she counts on the evolving positions of EU member states to strengthen her stand and raise these issues. She also expects Cuban willingness to discuss these issues, even if it is at their pace.

Focus on Latin America

Mogherini's visit to Cuba can also be seen as the will of EU diplomacy to focus more on Latin America. Historically, only a few member states of the EU gave importance to Latin America, such as Spain, for obvious historical and colonial reasons. As an example of this shift, on April 20, for the first time in five years, relations between the EU and Latin America were largely discussed by the EU foreign ministers council, which confirmed the new direction announced by Mogherini. The EU, therefore, decided to reinforce its political engagement in the region, expand the already important trade and economic relations, and capitalise on the convergence of views on several global issues such as climate change, a thematic issue important for both Latin America and the European Union. Moreover, growing economic openness in Cuba and peace talks in Colombia (hosted by Cuba) are two opportunities for the EU to claim that a positive change is occurring in Latin America.

Also, following Mogherini's visit, EU-Cuba talks are likely to happen more often. Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, was received in Brussels on April 23, and another round of negotiations will be conducted on the margins of the next EU-Celac Summit in June 2015 in Brussels, which is expected to be attended by Cuban President Raul Castro.

Even if it is not stated openly, EU's diplomatic moves towards Latin America and Cuba are also due to economic interests. There is competition between the EU and the US for the biggest Caribbean market. Cuban authorities would like to see this race intensify, which would enable them to negotiate better deals and economic agreements without any concessions from their side. Such subtle “ménage à 3” impel diplomats to display a high level of jargon, as highlighted by the statement of EU’s chief negotiator on Cuba, Christian Leffler that “denied the bloc was in a race with the United States,” and that “a more active (American) presence... can contribute to reinforcing the positive atmosphere.”3

This positive atmosphere is buttressed by the progressive opening up of the Cuban economy, and commercial opportunities that can be seized before other competitors. Indeed, the Cuban market could transform into the most important Caribbean hub and import-export platform, 80 miles away from the US. The impressive transformation of the Mariel port is an example of the direction taken by Cuba’s economy.

But, in any case, movement has been slow, and will continue to be slow, because of the will of the Cuban authorities to deal with this opening without any risk for political control. The government is still very sensitive to any foreign interference with local political life. Also, Cubans will probably give priority to countries that have given historical support to the island, among which the European countries are well positioned for having been more flexible than the US.

A new bilateral agreement could be signed very soon between the European Union and Cuba, but Cuban diplomats might enjoy the momentum and have the last word. As stated recently by Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez, “There are also areas of deep divisions between the EU and Cuba.”4 The European Union diplomatic corps has been warned that a very strong insistence on delicate issues such as human rights or state-control of the economy might change the leading advantage for the EU.

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