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June 2007
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EU embassy in Cuba inert amid sanctions talks

EU embassy in Cuba inert amid sanctions talks
11.06.2007 – 17:41 CET | By Francesco Guarascio

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Four years after it was set up, the European
Commission delegation in Cuba remains without any clear mandate to help
civil society or promote EU values, even as Spanish pressure in Brussels
is pushing the EU toward greater recognition of the Castro regime.

Opened in February 2003 to promote EU development goals, the commission
outpost just a few weeks later witnessed one of the biggest
anti-opposition crackdowns on the island in years. The row saw the EU
impose diplomatic sanctions, with Havana later banning any EU-funded
projects from taking place.

The peculiar contradictions of the Caribbean communist state – sun,
salsa and gross violations – are well known to EU
policy-makers, but the European mission's activity in 2007 is limited to
spending a tiny €1 million a year budget on state-sanctioned cultural
and social projects.

The commission office tries to stay in regular contact with dissidents,
but such work is hampered by the ever-watchful secret police, the
"." EU national embassies try to do more, but face
similar problems, with taps and bugs commonplace even inside EU buildings.

"Let's avoid speaking loudly. This room is also not safe," said an EU
member sate ambassador interviewed by EUobserver in his office in Havana
a few weeks ago, with the situation seeing an increasing number of
foreign NGOs pack up and leave the island in frustration.

Meanwhile, systemic repression against dissidents – mostly professional
people who blow the whistle on corruption or criticise official policy –
goes on daily, with "normal" Cuban life full of testimonies on the
government's anti-democratic ways.

Barbara Hernandez, now a member of the Damas de Blanco opposition group,
was sacked from her job at a bank after 22 years because her husband
(who got 20 years jail) wrote critical stories. Since then she has
suffered four "actos de repudios:" a practice where ruling party members
gather outside her home for days on end to shout abuse and throw objects
against the walls.

Guillermo Farinas is a psychologist who became an independent journalist
after he was sacked for denouncing his boss's corruption. He feeds
information to Miami-based Radio Marti and relies on the , which
most Cubans are forbidden from having at home and costs one month's
salary to install.

His neck is covered in scars. "They are from the drips that I used to be
fed through during my 17 months of hunger strike campaigning for free
internet in Cuba," he explained.

Darsi Ferrer is a medical doctor who lives on the outskirts of Havana in
a house lacking the most basic facilities, with a young child. By
December he will have no income and no way of getting new work, after
being blacklisted for trying to set up a healthcare NGO to serve Cuba's

His project punctured the state myth that Cuba has sophisticated
healthcare, when in reality its hospitals lack basic equipment such as
clean scalpels or stomach acid pills.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe is an economist and a former Cuban diplomat who was
for "ideological deviation" for supporting Gorbachev's
perestroika ideas in the 1980s. He is on temporary release due to poor
health. "I shared the cell with non-political prisoners. The light was
on all day long. Interrogations came anytime, we had mud as a floor," he

What comes next?
With Fidel's brother Raoul taking over the reins of government in the
past nine months due to Fidel's colon problems, speculation is mounting
on what may come next. Some islanders hope Raoul may follow the Chinese
model by gradually opening the economy, while tolerating greater black
market activity such as prostitution or unlicensed taxis, to help people

Reports of a slightly softer approach toward dissidents in recent months
fuel hope. But a negative scenario could see Raoul – who lacks the
personal charisma and oratorical flair that helped Fidel to keep power –
react in unpredictable ways to defend a fragile position when his
brother goes.

Back in Brussels, EU states will this week decide on their future Cuba
policy, with two rounds of diplomatic discussion on Tuesday, before a
conclusive EU ambassadors' meeting on Thursday. The debate comes amid
internal ideological confusion and a wait-and-see attitude to the
Raoul/Fidel situation.

A Spanish proposal to permanently drop the 2003 EU diplomatic sanctions,
which have been suspended due to Spanish pressure since 2005, is likely
to get through in the name of stronger EU-Cuba ties. But the question
remains what the pro-human rights camp led by the Czech Republic will
get in return.

"It's clear the sanctions aren't working, since they are suspended
anyway. But the issue is what is going to come after, what is the EU
going to get – a release of political prisoners, a real human rights
dialogue?" a senior EU official said.

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