On June 19, 2008, the European Union (EU) unanimously voted to lift its 2003 diplomatic sanctions against Cuba despite the hesitation from countries such as the Czech Republic and Sweden. The sanctions limited the ability of high-level government officials to visit Cuba and participate in its cultural and political events while establishing closer relations with Cuban dissidents elements on the island. This decision by Brussels’ authorities aims to encourage further liberalization through dialogue that is “unconditional, reciprocal, non-discriminatory and results oriented…in the context of recent changes initiated by President Raúl Castro.” The EU calls upon Cuban authorities to continue to protect human rights and release political prisoners while resuming economic aid to the island. In a year’s time, the EU will review the island’s progress and, if this measure proves ineffective, its members can reconsider their strategy to further to further encourage the democratization process
However, this decision has drawn criticism from Miami-based Cuban exiles and once again has put the EU at odds with Washington’s policy. Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the US State Department described Raúl’s reforms as being purely cosmetic and that lifting the sanctions before the release of all political prisoners will unjustifiably legitimize the new Castro regime. Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa stated that the EU’s decision will signal to the Cuban government that it pays to be intransigent and inflexible.” Although Cuba is still far from being a liberal democracy, to label the reforms implemented by Raúl Castro as inconsequential is a narrow-minded claim. Opposition groups are being tolerated, homosexuality is not longer a crime, some Cubans have received titles to their homes, the socialist inspired salary cap has been eliminated, and agriculture has been decentralized. In addition, a number of political prisoners have been released, thirty death sentences have been commuted, and capital punishment has been unofficially abolished. Alone, some of these actions might seem modest but taken together, they provide genuine hope for the creation of a new, and more balanced, Cuba.
The EU sanctions were imposed as a way to pressure Cuban authorities to moderate and democratize. However, they were largely ineffective. Not even the US economic embargo, which severely hurt the Cuban economy, was effective in coercing Fidel Castro to protect human and experiment with a representative democracy. The embargo’s only accomplishment was to further deteriorate the quality of life of the average Cuban. One should not forget that the rationing system originally was installed due to the shortage of food and supplies that accompanies the economic hardship caused by Washington’s embargo. It is widely acknowledged that Washington’s hard-line approach to Cuba’s revolutionary government has mainly failed and that is it time for a different tactic.
By lifting the sanctions, the EU is not merely opening the path to dialogue, but it also increases its ability to exercises leverage over the new directions being undertaken by Raúl Castro and helps him consolidate the island’s transition to an open and more responsive society. These sanctions against Havana, in any event, were not being enforced, so maintaining them would have been meaningless. Officially eliminated them, however, should be seen as an act of good faith that has the potential to restore the Cuban government’s connection to the international community in a constructive manner. The question now remains: is the US willing to follow suit or will it continue to maintain its uncompromising and failed stance that has only hurt the Cuban people?