By Chimène Coste (for Safe Democracy)

Chimène Coste analyzes the history of the relationship between the European Union and Cuba, pointing out that the two options Brussels now has are either to maintain its current sanctions against Cuba, thus condemning the political repression of the country, or it can open itself up to dialogue, trade, and institutional cooperation. Spain and France have taken particular interest in relations with Cuba from the very beginning, and as Coste explains, the future of relations between Europe and Cuba is entirely in the hands of these two countries. The best decision now for Europe would be to follow in the diplomatic footsteps of previous Spanish and French presidents Felipe Gonzalez and Francois Mitterand. These two showed that it is possible to continue sanctioning Cuba, while establishing constructive dialogue.

Chimène Coste is a political scientist with a Master’s in Political Sociology from the University of La Sorbonne in Paris. She is currently completing her doctorate on Cuba.


The two countries most capable of influencing European’s decision now are Spain and France. Spain holds obvious weight for its past of widespread colonialism. And France for its diplomatic talent, vision of geopolitics, and history of encouraging dialogue and refusing blockades and embargos.

The relationship between the European Union and Cuba depends, therefore, heavily upon who holds the power in these two countries. Past presidents Felipe Gonzalez, and Francois Mitterand established extremely close ties with Fidel Castro during their terms, thus influencing the European stance towards Cuba. Even out of office, the good relationship between Europe and Cuba continued. In 2001, for example, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov prize to dissident Oswaldo Payá. Payá was one of the leaders of the Varela project in Cuba, an organization devoted to bringing democracy to the island. Payá was honored because he shared the diplomatic views of the European Union at the time: the promotion of open dialogue with Castro.

Yet in 2003, relationships between Europe and Cuba began to break down. The deterioration was partially a result of changing world politics caused by US unilateralism in its invasion of Iraq. But the Cuban government itself left little room for negotiation when it decided to try seventy-five political dissidents without providing for their proper defense, and to execute three citizens caught fleeing the country in a hijacked boat.

Due to these events, the European Union decided to sanction the country by freezing institutional cooperation between the EU and Cuba. To add insult to injury, European embassies in Cuba received orders to invite political dissidents for the celebration of Cuba’s national holiday. Cuba responded by publicly condemning the EU’s decision, and by nationalizing the Spanish cultural center in el Malecón (Havana).

Years later, the ministers of Foreign Affairs of the European Union all agreed in Vienna to refuse the coercive and unilateral measures of the United States, which go against international law and the norms of free trade. The declaration was met with exuberance by Carlos Lage, vice-president of Cuba, who declared it to be a great success for the values of the Cuban people.

Will 2006 see a renewed effort towards diplomacy between Europe and Cuba? Is this the first step towards the end of the sanctions established in 2003?

Ursula Plassnik, Austria’s minister of Foreign Affairs, has publicly stated that the EU is still unsure about maintaining its sanctions. And yet as Carlos Lage puts it, the EU has neither motive nor moral justification for sanctioning Cuba. It has no motive because Cuba has always acted for the common good of its people. And it has no moral justification because Europe supported the war in Iraq just as much as any other nation.

Maintaining the sanctions would send a strong message to Cuba that Europe will not stand for political repression of any kind. Eliminating the sanctions, on the other hand, would be deciding, as Gonzalez and Mitterand agreed, that dialogue, commerce, and institutional cooperation (through the growth of cultural ties, the collaboration of universities) are the best way to encourage change in Cuba.

Maintaining the sanctions is a mainly symbolic act. Cuba does not need economic support from the European Union, as it already receives aid from Venezuela.

In my opinion, therefore, the establishment of dialogue with Cuba is currently the most viable option open to the European Union. It would be possible to continue sanctions as a symbolic gesture, while also working with Cuba to sow seeds for political, social, and economic change.

The EU is reaching a critical moment in its history. It has the opportunity now to make a decision unbiased by the influence of Miami and Washington.