High profile visits illustrate growing European rift with US over Cuba

Three high profile European visits in the space of a week have underlined the growing rift between Europe and the Trump Administration over Cuba, while showing the EU’s determination to deepen cooperation and dialogue, despite US sanctions.

Speaking during a 21-23 June visit, the EC’s Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, made clear that Europe was concerned about the effect of the tightening of the US embargo and the recent US travel restrictions on the Cuban economy on the lives of Cubans.

Mimica also signed an agreement which will provide about €4m (US$4.6m) to expand European cooperation in part to create a one-stop window to help European business to explore joint ventures in Cuba’s priority development sectors. 

Mimica also met with President Díaz-Canel and senior Cuban ministers and spoke at an investment forum during which he indicated that the EU is considering further ways in which it might increase its development assistance.

He told the Forum that the EC was taking stock of its bilateral cooperation, to better understand Cuba’s socio-economic challenges, and to assess how Europe might have a greater impact on Cuba’s development. He also noted that Europe’s Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement with Cuba had enabled the EU to hold five structured dialogues on issues of concern including human rights, the US embargo, and multilateral issues including arms control.

Mimica noted that EU cooperation with Cuba was evolving, is expected to reach over €100m (US$114m) this year, and will have greater sectoral depth, particularly in relation to agriculture, renewable energy, economic modernisation, climate change and culture.

Speaking about the US embargo, the Commissioner said that the EU continues to “strongly oppose the extraterritorial application of unilateral Cuba-related measures that are contrary to international law”.

Prior to Mimica’s visit EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 17 June, agreed to develop measures that would protect European businesses affected by the Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation. A short statement said that EU member states ‘would draw on all appropriate measures to address the effects of the Helms-Burton Act, including in relation to the EU’s WTO rights and through the use of the EU blocking statute’.

UK and France pursuing investment, trade and political dialogue

Mimica’s visit was preceded by a 30-person investment and trade delegation led by Lord Triesman, a former Foreign Office Minister and the Co-Chair of the bilateral Cuba Initiative.

Speaking at the start of a two-day forum to discuss investment and trade opportunities, Triesman described the US embargo as “deeply offensive”. He said that despite the problems it had created, UK companies still saw significant opportunity for trade and investment especially in relation to tourism, energy, transportation, food security and biopharma products. The opening of the forum was attended by President Díaz-Canel, senior Cuban Ministers and the British Ambassador.

During the visit Lord Triesman met separately with President Díaz-Canel, Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, Rodrigo Malmierca, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment who is the Chair of the Cuban side of the Cuba Initiative, and with Marcelino Medina, the first deputy minister of Foreign Affairs of Cuba to discuss the state of bilateral relations.

In Havana, delegation members discussed business opportunities with, among others, the Ministries of Energy and Mines, Foreign Investment, Transport, Tourism, and the Central Bank of Cuba. In addition, they visited the facilities of BioCubaFarma and the Mariel Special Development Zone. The United Kingdom already has a number of investment projects in Cuba in tourism and the renewable energy sector.

The visit effectively relaunched the Cuba Initiative and followed from discussions in November 2018 when President Díaz-Canel visited London. The Cuba Initiative is an independent non-governmental body that predominantly supports investment and trade but also works to improve relations between the UK and Cuba. It was founded in 1995 in response to a request from both governments.

Three days earlier the Secretary General of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne had held meetings on 14 June with Cuban ministers and officials which both sides said were expected to lead to a strengthening in France and Cuba’s bilateral political dialogue. The discussions also addressed regional and international issues including Venezuela.

The visits reflect high-level European concern that US policy is in danger of isolating Cuba at a time of generational change. EU Ministers and officials believe that US measures are counterproductive, undermine legitimate trade and damage attempts to bring Cuba into the international fold. They believe that the present US approach could become an obstacle to free and frank discussion on reform in Cuba, will not bring about the changes the US is pursing, and will create significant new openings for Russia and China. The EU also regards Cuba as an important interlocutor in relation to finding a political resolution to the situation in Venezuela.

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