21 Mar 2016

Winds of Change for US and EU Relations with Cuba

Erwan Fouéré


Author: Erwan Fouéré

Series: CEPS Commentary

The visit by President Obama to Cuba this week marks a new and dramatic phase in the relations between the US and its next-door island neighbour just 90 km off its coastline. It will have taken almost 90 years for an American President to cross the Florida straits after the previous visit, by President Calvin Coolidge, who arrived not by air but on a battleship.

In terms of symbolism this visit will represent one of those seminal moments in world history, similar in the European context to the visit of Queen Elizabeth to her own next-door island neighbour in 2011, the first by a British monarch to Ireland in almost 100 years.

For both President Obama and President Raul Castro, the visit marks the culmination of years of behind-the-scene talks in an effort to forge a new relationship, after decades of conflict and confrontation. Despite repeated requests from other Latin American leaders to end its ill-conceived embargo established in 1960, an embargo reinforced by the US Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 (known as the Helms-Burton Act), the US persisted in perpetuating a relic from the cold-war period, even after the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Efforts by John F. Kennedy, who was known to enjoy a plentiful supply of Cuban cigars, as well as by Jimmy Carter during his own Presidency to initiate a dialogue, however modest, came to nothing, the former due to his assassination and the latter, to his unsuccessful bid for a second term.

But thanks to several factors converging, and an unlikely dramatis personae that included the Pope, President Obama was able to slowly pull back the curtain and pave the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations just over a year ago. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Havana in August last year for the formal raising of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ marking the re-opening of the US embassy. This was followed by the gradual easing of travel restrictions, as well as the removal of obstacles allowing US businesses to engage with Cuban state-owned companies. The stage was thus set for the Presidential visit from 20 to 22 March 2016.

By fortuitous coincidence, just two weeks before President Obama’s visit, VP/HR Federica Mogherini paid her second visit to Cuba since assuming office, and on March 12th together with Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez Parilla, formally concluded the negotiations for a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA) between Cuba and the European Union. The agreement is expected to be formally signed and ratified before the end of the year, and “will contribute to enhancing EU-Cuba relations, accompanying the process of ‘updating’ the Cuban economy and society, promoting dialogue and cooperation to foster sustainable development, democracy and human rights, and find common solutions to global challenges”.[1]

This latest development in EU-Cuban relations follows two years of negotiations that were formally launched in April 2014. It was preceded by over two decades of a periodically difficult relationship since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1988. The ups and downs in the relationship were dictated by events both inside and outside of Cuba (regular crackdowns on Cuban dissidents, an increasingly aggressive Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s financial supporter, etc.), as well as by changing attitudes towards Cuba within the EU itself.

It was during the conservative government of José María Aznar in Spain that the EU’s so-called Common Position was adopted in 1996. While less restrictive than the US measures, it nevertheless placed EU relations with Cuba under strict control with any opening contingent on democratic reforms. But it did not stop business and investment opportunities, and the EU became the island’s largest investor and largest trading partner in the succeeding years, despite US attempts under the Helms-Burton Act to extend territorial application of the Act to foreign companies trading with Cuba Venezuela, however, replaced the EU as the main trading partner following the arrival of Chavez.

The visits of both President Obama and VP/HR Mogherini this month signal a clear change of approach from both the US and the EU, moving from confrontation to engagement. As stated by Mogherini in Havana on March 11th, “[t]his accord (the PDCA) marks the end of the common position”, and “the beginning of a new era in our bilateral relations”.

For the US, however, with a rather hostile Republican-dominated Congress opposed to any radical change, it will be some time before what remains of the 1961 embargo will be lifted. In addition, the Guantanamo Bay lease to the US in perpetuity under the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty of Relations replaced by the 1934 Treaty of the same name, will remain a thorn in the side of US-Cuban relations for some time to come. Nevertheless, President Obama has made it clear that decades of isolation failed to accomplish the US objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba. He can also point to the critical role played by Cuba in hosting the peace talks that formally began in November 2012 between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels aimed at bringing the guerrilla war in Colombia to an end.

This most recent visit of Mogherini to the Latin American continent (she also visited Argentina, which has recently elected a new President) highlights the increased attention being focused by the EU on expanding relations with the countries of the region both on a bilateral level as well as with the regional entities – the Andean Community, Mercosur and the Central American Integration System. Interestingly, President Obama will also visit Argentina following his visit to Cuba.

The end of the Monroe Doctrine

From an historical perspective, this EU-US ‘tandem’, however coincidental, is quite extraordinary, when one recalls the stance taken by the US in the not-too-distant past when the European Community, as it was then called, launched the so-called San José Dialogue during the Irish rotating Presidency in September 1984. This initiative, which brought together around the same table all the Central American Presidents, several of whom were at war with each other, was criticised by the US Reagan Administration for what was perceived as interference in the US ‘backyard’.

It was a blunt reminder of the Monroe doctrine, which had dictated US relations with the Latin American continent for over a century and a half.[2] The European Community was at pains to underline that its effort was aimed at finding “a negotiated regional global, peaceful solution in order to put an end to the violence and instability in the area and to foster social, justice and economic development and respect for human rights and democratic liberties”.[3] Indeed the European Community was the only interlocutor at that time that was able to bring all the Central American countries together to support the peace process.

This was a foreign policy that garnered considerable respect for the European Community throughout the Latin American continent. When the then Commissioner responsible for Mediterranean Policy and North-South Relations, Claude Cheysson, travelled to Bogota in 1985, his visit was hailed by the then Colombian Foreign Minister Ramirez Ocampo as marking “the end of the Monroe doctrine”. Since then, the EU-Latin American relationship has grown significantly, with the EU being the largest investor in the continent today. Regular summit meetings take place between the EU and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. These relations have given the EU a not inconsiderable advantage in terms of business opportunities, although there remains much potential yet to be realised.

Shadow of Fidel

But it is the visit of Obama to Cuba that will secure its place in the history books. The elephant in the room during the meetings between both Presidents Obama and Castro will be the looming shadow of Fidel, the elder brother by four years of Raul. Now in his twilight years (he turns 90 this August), Fidel, who has seen the backs of ten US Presidents since the Cuban revolution, will no doubt feel vindicated that the US has finally recognised the futility of the embargo (el bloqueo, as it was commonly referred to).

But he will also realise that it will now be more difficult for the island’s leaders to resist the winds of change, even if initially it is likely to be a softly blowing breeze rather than a hurricane. For the people of Cuba, who, like many island nations, are immensely proud of their heritage and national identity, this will be a welcome development, no matter how slowly the wind blows.  

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which he is associated.

Erwan Fouéré, CEPS Associate Senior Research Fellow and the first Head of the European Commission Delegation accredited to Cuba (1989-92).

Available for free downloading from the CEPS website (www.ceps.eu)

© CEPS 2016


[1] EU External Action Service, La Havana, “EU Relations with Cuba: EU-Cuba negotiations towards a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement”, doc. 160311_03_en.

[2] The so-called Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed by President James Monroe in December 1823, became a cornerstone of American foreign policy. The doctrine warned that further efforts by European nations to colonise land or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression, warranting US intervention.

[3] Joint Communique of the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the European Community and its member states, Portugal and Spain, the States of Central America and the Contadora States, San José, Costa Rica, 28-29 September 1984.