The death at the weekend of the revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro saw sharp differences of opinion within EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s cabinet.
Castro died aged 90 on Friday (25 November) after ruling the Caribbean island from 1959-2006 – not much less a timespan than the EU bloc itself.
His Communist government saw huge strides in education and health care for the islanders, whilst an absence of democratic elections or a free press made him a constant bogeyman in US foreign policy – which placed Cuba under an economic embargo and tried unsuccessfully to overthrow his regime and assassinate Castro himself.
Reflecting this ambiguous legacy, Juncker called Castro “a hero for many” and “one of the historic figures of the past century and the embodiment of the Cuban Revolution”.
Juncker did not touch on human rights abuses and repression, instead remarking enigmatically that “his legacy will be judged by history” – an echo of Castro’s own claim that “history will absolve me”.
That – or perhaps other favourable tributes – appeared to anger Trade Commissioner Celia Malmström.
On Saturday (26 November), she tweeted: “Fidel Castro was a dictator who oppressed his people for 50 years. Strange to hear all the tributes in the news today.”
Fidel Castro was a dictator who oppressed his people for 50 years. Strange to hear all the tributes in the news today.
— Cecilia Malmström (@MalmstromEU) November 26, 2016
That could make for an interesting cabinet meeting on Wednesday (30 November), if the subject arises.
It was left to foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini – who officially speaks for the EU on such matters – to strike a more neutral, balanced, appraisal.
She said, “Fidel Castro was a man of determination and an historical figure. He passes away in times of great challenges and uncertainties. And of great changes in his country.”
Returning to current EU-Cuban relations, under Fidel’s brother Raul, she added: “With agreeing on the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement last spring, the European Union opened a new chapter in relations that have always been strong through decades with the Cuban people. The European Union will keep bringing forward its strong engagement with Cuba.”
Spain is perhaps the EU member state with the most direct relationship with Spanish-speaking Cuba, as a former colonial master.
But even conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was fairly circumspect, sending his condolences in a tweet that merely called Castro “a figure of historic importance.”
Mis condolencias al gobierno y autoridades cubanas por el fallecimiento del expresidente Fidel Castro, una figura de calado histórico. MR
— Mariano Rajoy Brey (@marianorajoy) November 26, 2016
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, was perhaps the most outspoken critic, calling Castro’s Cuba “neither a political nor an economic model.”
With his revolution in 1959 Fidel Castro set up a still struggling Communist dictatorship. Neither a political nor an economic model. RIP
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) November 26, 2016
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's statement on the death of Fidel Castro:
Fidel Castro was one of the historic figures of the past century and the embodiment of the Cuban Revolution. With the death of Fidel Castro, the world has lost a man who was a hero for many. He changed the course of his country and his influence reached far beyond. Fidel Castro remains one of the revolutionary figures of the 20th century. His legacy will be judged by history.
I convey my condolences to the Cuban President Raúl Castro and his family and to the people of Cuba.
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini:
Having learnt the news of the passing away of Comandante Fidel Castro, I would like first of all to express my most heartfelt condolences to his brother Raul, their family and friends.
Fidel Castro was a man of determination and an historical figure. He passes away in times of great challenges and uncertainties. And of great changes in his country.
With agreeing on the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement last spring, the European Union opened a new chapter in relations that have always been strong through decades with the Cuban people. The European Union will keep bringing forward its strong engagement with Cuba.