Spanish Foreign Policy Hits Rocks Over Cuba
Spanish Foreign Policy Hits Rocks Over Cuba
From the desk of Soeren Kern on Tue, 2007-07-17 12:32
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his political
spin doctors have been especially busy this summer. Indeed, they have
been making furious rounds on the national television talk show circuit,
trying to explain to an increasingly skeptical Spanish public just why
the Socialist government's "progressive" foreign policy of coddling
third world despots has turned Spain into one of the most marginalized
countries in the European Union.
Foreign Policy Setbacks
The latest setback to Spanish foreign policy occurred on June 21, when
the European Parliament, taking an unexpected break from measuring the
curvature of imported bananas, approved a new resolution about human
rights in Cuba. Firmly squashing efforts by Spain to de-link political
dialogue with Cuba from the issue of human rights on the island, the
European Parliament reiterated that it: "Considers it extremely
important that any strengthening of political and economic relations –
including development aid – between the EU and the Cuban authorities,
which might derive from a comprehensive and open political dialogue, be
linked to concrete and verifiable improvements of the human rights
conditions of all Cuban citizens, starting with the release of all
political prisoners and prisoners of conscience."
At the same time, the 27-member European Union on June 18 said the
temporary transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul – the
first change of power in 48 years – constituted a "new situation." In
this context, it invited a Cuban delegation to Brussels to explore a
thaw in ties, but only on the condition that Havana agrees to discuss
human rights on the island. Here again, Spain lobbied hard but failed to
persuade other EU members of the merits of overlooking human rights
violations by the Caribbean regime.
All this came only a few weeks after a June 1 trip to Madrid by US
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (which the Socialist government had
hoped would finally pave the way for Zapatero to receive a much-coveted
invitation to visit the White House) ended in what the local press
afterwards dubbed a "humiliating" public relations disaster for Spain.
Indeed, Rice, much to the dismay of her Spanish hosts, refused to play
the game of pretending that US-Spain relations are back to normal. (In
fact, bilateral relations have never recovered since Zapatero abruptly
withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq in 2004, a problem that has been
compounded by a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric spewing forth
from the prime minister and his senior ministers.)
Instead, Rice used her visit to Madrid to publicly chide stone-faced
Spanish officials for not doing more to support dissidents in Cuba.
Referring to a controversial visit to Cuba in April by the hapless
Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who publicly boasted
about his refusal to meet with members of the Cuban opposition, Rice
said that: "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."
Inconsistent EU Policy on Cuba
The current impasse in EU relations with Cuba dates back to mid-March
2003, when Cuban authorities carried out an unprecedented clampdown on
the opposition movement on the island. Over the space of a few days,
security forces rounded up over 75 dissidents in targeted sweeps. The
detainees were subjected to hasty and unfair trials, and, just weeks
after their arrest, were given long prison terms of up to 28 years.
In response, Brussels, at the behest of then Spanish Prime Minister José
María Aznar, in June 2003 imposed diplomatic sanctions on Havana. The EU
measures called for limiting high-level diplomatic visits to Cuba,
reviewing EU relations with Havana, and inviting dissidents to European
embassies for national day celebrations, leading to what became known as
the "cocktail wars."
In January 2005, however, at the insistence of Spain's newly elected
Socialist government, the EU suspended the measures, restoring
diplomatic relations and ending its ban on talks with Cuban officials.
Ever since then, Spain, following Zapatero's post-modern religious
belief that engaging dictators is better than isolating them, has led a
push for EU relations with Cuba to be fully normalized. In doing so, he
has implicitly asked fellow EU member states to ignore the issue of
human rights on the island.
That campaign, however, has put Spain on a collision course with many
other EU members, notably former communist countries like Poland and the
Czech Republic, which insist that the EU should not fully normalize its
ties with Cuba until civil and political freedoms are granted to all
citizens. Indeed, the Eastern European countries that joined the bloc in
2004 retain vivid memories of repression under communism and believe
that normalizing ties would send the wrong signal to the Cuban leadership.
But as many Spaniards in their newfound prosperity are quick to forget,
Spain itself has only recently transitioned to democracy, so shouldn't
it be leading the charge for democracy in Cuba? Indeed, during her
recent visit to Madrid, Rice referred to General Francisco Franco's
1939-75 dictatorship in Spain as she reminded her hosts that a country
with "an authoritarian past" should understand the need for democracy in
What is Spain Thinking?
But the Socialist government does not seem to agree. During his first
three years in office, Zapatero has established a consistent practice of
reaching out to authoritarian regimes at the expense of democratic
states: Venezuela in lieu of Colombia; Iran and Syria in lieu of Israel;
and so on. Indeed, Spaniards increasingly are asking themselves why
Spain's Socialists insist on forging alliances with authoritarian
regimes when that support is beginning to damage Spain's own reputation
in the EU and elsewhere.
Although Spanish political commentators are deeply divided on how to
answer that question, in the case of Cuba, most analysts seem to agree
that three main issues are driving Spanish foreign policy on Cuba: Oil,
nostalgia and politics.
The issue of oil is straightforward. In 2004, Spain's energy giant
Repsol-YPF found signs of oil in the deep waters off Cuban shores.
Repsol, which has six concession blocks along a narrow sector of the
Gulf of Mexico off Cuba's northwestern coast, says it will spend more
than $40 million on the project, but believes its investment could yield
up to 1.6 billion barrels of oil below the seabed. Repsol's venture,
which is established with Cubapetroleo, a company owned by the Cuban
government, is now bidding for new oil contracts in Cuban waters. Thus
it comes as no surprise that a number of EU countries suspect that
Spain's love affair with Castro has more to do with money than with
principle, and that its mantra that dialogue with the dictator is a fig
leaf for more cynical interests.
Then there is the issue of nostalgia-based anti-Americanism. Although it
has been more than 100 years since Spain lost Cuba, a highly prized
Spanish colonial possession for more than 400 years, in the
Spanish-American War of 1898, many Spaniards still have an almost
mythical attachment to the island. Indeed, lingering resentment over the
loss of Cuba, which mar
ked the definitive end to the Spanish Empire, is
often cited as the root source of anti-Americanism in contemporary
Spain. In this context, many Spanish leftists glorify Castro as a
revolutionary hero who has bravely resisted American efforts to promote
democracy on the island.
Finally, there is the issue of politics, both foreign and domestic.
Since taking office, Zapatero has shifted Spain's long-standing
Atlanticist foreign policy to one focused almost exclusively on Europe.
This precipitous policy shift has had disastrous results: Not only has
it severely damaged Spain's relationship with the United States, it has
also cost Spain much of its credibility in Europe.
In the main, Zapatero's foreign policy has been motivated a desire to
prove that the Socialists are better than the center-right opposition
Popular Party at running Spanish foreign policy. The problem for Spain
is that Zapatero has made it personal, turning Spanish foreign
policymaking into an obsession that has become detached from common sense.
Thus the main beneficiaries of Spanish foreign policy have been
authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. It comes as no
big surprise that this, in turn, has damaged Spain's credibility with
other EU countries, most of which are trying to forge a more responsible
European foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States.
No Invitation to Visit the White House
The ironic result is that Zapatero, a compulsive anti-American, now
needs a visit to the White House to affirm to Spanish voters his
credentials as a statesman. Zapatero is one of the few European leaders
to never have had an official bilateral meeting with US President George
W Bush, and the Spanish media obsessed on the fact that Rice's visit to
Madrid was noticeably brief – just six hours without the symbolic
overnight stay reserved for close allies.
Thus while Rice's visit was meant to smooth over a three-year downturn
in relations between Washington and Madrid, the disagreement over Cuba
has washed away any emerging good will. Rice, after meeting Moratinos,
said: "I made very clear… I have real doubts about the value of
engagement with a regime that is antidemocratic. 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."
Moratinos replied by saying that: "I'm sure that in time she'll be
convinced that the Spanish strategy will produce results." As Moratinos
continued to speak, Rice rolled her eyes and said: "Don't hold your breath."
The problem for Moratinos is that he will need to convince Castro even
more than Rice. And that prospect does not look very promising. Flatly
rejecting the EU's invitation for a visit to Brussels, Havana declared
that: "We do not recognize the moral authority of the European Union to
judge or advise Cuba." It continued by saying that: "It is up to the
European Union to make up for the mistakes committed with Cuba. But
there's no hurry: We have all the time in the world."
Unfortunately for Zapatero, time may indeed be on Castro's side. The
Spanish prime minister is up for re-election in early 2008 and Spanish
voters are wondering why he still has not been invited to the White
House. Will Bush throw Zapatero a lifeline?
Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the
Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.