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Europe split over Cuba

President Bush’s speech on Cuba Wednesday will have particular resonance in Europe, where a battle between competing views on how to deal with the Castro regime has intensified in recent years.

The sharpest divisions are evident between socialist-ruled Spain and the formerly communist countries of Central Europe, where sympathy for Cuban dissidents runs deep in official and non-governmental circles alike. In his speech at the State Department, the president said the US would maintain its policy of isolating Havana and called for international support.

„Now is the time for the world to put aside its differences and prepare for Cuba’s transition to a future of freedom and progress and promise,” he said. Bush singled out the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, praising their „support and encouragement to Cuba’s brave democratic opposition” and urged other countries to follow their example. In 2003, the European Union (EU), prompted by Spain - Cuba’s 19th century colonial ruler - imposed diplomatic sanctions after the regime arrested 75 prominent dissidents, put them on trial and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms.

The EU also agreed to support Cuban dissidents by inviting them to functions at EU member states’ diplomatic missions in Havana. President Fidel Castro in turn froze ties with the embassies. Among the most enthusiastic supporters of the sanctions were the former Warsaw Pact countries who joined the EU in 2004. But EU consensus quickly crumbled. Spain’s conservative government was replaced by a socialist one under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who spearheaded efforts to repair the severed ties with Cuba.

The sanctions were eased in January 2005, and Zapatero also pushed for EU member states to stop inviting dissidents to their embassy receptions, arguing that this would help to ease tensions further. The Czech government put its foot down, calling the proposal „unacceptable.” Former President Vaclav Havel - himself a former dissident - accused the EU of „dancing to Fidel Castro’s tune” and slammed „the idea that evil must be appeased.” Prague threatened to use a veto in the EU’s Council of Foreign Ministers, where policy decisions must be agreed upon unanimously.

The Spanish proposal failed. Zapatero has not given up, however, and his government continues to urge the EU to draw a distinction between political dialogue with Cuba and the issue of human rights. Last April, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos became the first EU foreign minister to visit Havana since the events of 2003. He met with Cuban authorities but not with dissidents, prompting the US human rights watchdog Freedom House to say the decision „sent an unfortunate - if unintended - message that issues of human rights are not a top priority in Spanish foreign policy.”

During a brief visit to Madrid two months later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought up the issue. „Democratic states have an obligation to act democratically, meaning to support opposition in Cuba, not to give the regime the idea that they can transition from one dictatorship to another,” she told reporters accompanying her, referring to the ailing Castro’s handover of power to his brother, Raul, in mid-2006. In a joint press appearance with Moratinos, the differences were again evident.

Rice said she had made it clear in her talks „that I have real doubts about the value of engagement with a regime that is anti-democratic.” „People who are struggling for a democratic future need to know that they are supported by those of us who are lucky enough to be free,” she added. Moratinos responded, „I’m sure that after some time goes by, [Rice] will probably be more convinced that the Spanish approach ... can have its results.” In a briefing Wednesday on the administration’s Cuba policy, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Bush is challenging the international community to speak up in favor of democracy and human rights in Cuba.

„The question is: Where is the outrage?,” he said. „We’ve heard of the outrage about Burma. And you know the things happening in Cuba have been going on for a lot longer and more intensely than Burma. Where is the outrage?” Soeren Kern, senior fellow in transatlantic relations at the Strategic Studies Group in Madrid, wrote last July that Spain’s stance on Cuba appears to be driven by hopes of finding oil off the Cuban coast, „nostalgia-based anti-Americanism,” and a shift away from a „long-standing Atlanticist foreign policy to one focused almost exclusively on Europe.” (crosswalk)