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Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is a Sticking Point in Efforts to Normalize Relations With the EU

The EU’s foreign policy chief said Tuesday in Havana that human rights are a key part of the dialogue with Cuban officials as they work to restore diplomatic relations.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Mar 25 2015, 10:46pm

Image via the European Union

After 18 months of secret talks, the US and Cuba announced a plan in December to end 50 years of frosty Cold War relations and restore full diplomatic ties. Now the European Union is trying to follow suit, though Cuba's human rights record could stand in the way.

Speaking Tuesday at a press conference in Havana, Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, said the bloc hopes to "speed up the pace of negotiations," and normalize relations with Cuba by the end of the year. Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is the first European official to visit Cuba since 2008.

Unlike the US, the EU has never imposed a commercial or diplomatic embargo on Cuba. However, in 1996, member states adopted a "common position" to suspend all relations with Cuba pending significant improvement of its human rights record. Bilateral relations between individual states and Cuba continued, unaffected by the "common position," which only concerned the EU as a political entity.

Without getting into specifics, Mogherini said Tuesday that human rights are a key part of the dialogue with Cuba, and that her talks with Cuban officials on the issue have been "positive."

Europe is Cuba's top foreign investor and the country's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela. EU member states account for 22 percent of all foreign trade with the island, and several European companies — such as French hotel group Accor — have successfully established themselves there. It's estimated that half of Cuba's tourists come from Europe.

Related: Cuba throws 'unconditional' support to Venezuela after new US sanctions 

In January, President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes to the current US sanctions against Cuba, allowing some exports, permitting expanded travel to the island, and easing banking restrictions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited Cuba in February and said there is "great enthusiasm" in Congress about lifting the embargo completely, but lawmakers have yet to act.

The shifting US policies will likely create stiff competition for Europe in the Cuban market, but Mogherini insisted Tuesday that the EU is not contending against the US — at least not on a diplomatic front. She said that both countries are conducting "different processes," which are "at different stages," and are being conducted within "different frameworks."

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), told VICE News that, despite reforms introduced by President Raul Castro in 2012, human rights remain a thorny subject for many European diplomats.

"The High Representative's position is not straightforward, because Europeans remain divided on Cuba — as they do on other topics," Kourliandsky said. "Some of the member states from the former Eastern Bloc — such as the Czech Republic or Poland — have cold feet about reinstating diplomatic ties without human rights guarantees, while others want to resume political dialogue."

In 2005, the European Commission said it remained "deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Cuba," singling out "the arrest and sentencing of 75 members of the peaceful opposition in Spring 2003" as one example of the country's poor human rights record.

On Tuesday, Mogherini said she insisted on the "necessity of providing a framework for the discussion on human rights" during her meetings with the Cuban officials.

Mogherini met with Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who is set to travel to Brussels for the next round of talks on April 22, just 10 days before the seventh Summit of the Americas. Cuba has been invited to attend the Washington-backed summit in Panama City for the first time since the event's launch in 1994.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho

Photo of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Cuba via the European Union.