Mr. Timmermans, who was on a visit to Cuba last week, said the best way to promote change on the Communist-run island is through dialogue, not isolation. As far as is known, this is the first Dutch foreign minister to visit since the 1959 revolution.
The EU restricts its political ties with the Cuban government in order to encourage multi-party democracy and an end to human rights violations. In 1996, the EU agreed on a set of rules governing its relations with Cuba, called the Common Position. It states that the EU’s objective is “to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.” Cuba has rejected the Common Position, claiming that it interferes in its internal affairs.
After meeting with Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba, the Dutch Foreign Minister reported that “interesting things are happening in Cuba, and it’s time for the EU to modernise its ties with the island.”
It is true that positive developments are taking place. For instance, on 19 December, the Cuban authorities decided to lift the 50 year old car import ban allowing Cubans to buy modern cars. Also, Cubans are now allowed to start up little enterprises and to travel to other countries. But are these developments enough to bring the relationship with the EU forward?
Change does not automatically mean improvement. The reforms of President Raúl Castro are taking place on an economic level and much less on a political level. According to Kees van Korenhof, Chair of the Glasnost Foundation in Cuba, there are some flaws in the reforms. For example, the new labour law allows Cubans to start a company but it does not include the right to strike. There is still no legal right to strike. In addition, independent trade unions are still not permitted.
In December there were 1123 political detentions. Even though Fidel Castro’s 30-year sentences are not imposed anymore, political activists are still terrorized. Dissidents are beaten up, their houses are attacked by supporters of the regime and their neighbourhoods are vandalised. One example is the resistance group Damas de Blanco fighting against human rights violations. They march together every Sunday to demonstrate against the regime and every Sunday they are being insulted, abused or arrested.
Yoani Sanchez criticized Mr. Timmermans’ visit arguing that he did not meet anyone from the opposition. According to Sanchez, he did not meet with activists or persons from independent organisations which is disappointing because there are many projects for a democratic transition and human rights.
It is clear that the democratic progress in Cuba is limited. Therefore, I wonder what Mr. Timmermans can achieve in a country that is still a strict communist country. President Raúl Castro is different than his brother but still many opponents of the regime are being arrested and many basic rights are being denied. There are some encouraging improvements in the human rights situation but there remain significant areas of concern. Mr. Timmermans might be right when he says starting a dialogue is better then turning our backs but he should start dialogues with the entire Cuban society, including the opposition.