Five empty chairs remind of Cuba’s regime true nature

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Cuban human rights defenders who participated to the project of presenting a report on EU's agreement with Cuba. [Civil Rights Defenders]

The EU needs to change strategy if it wishes to stand for democracy in Cuba, by opening up to independent civil society, write Anders L. Petersson and Erik Jennische.

Anders L. Pettersson is the executive director, Civil Rights Defenders; Erik Jennische is the director for Latin America department, Civil Rights Defenders.

On Saturday (1 February) at 6 pm Cuban time, five Cuban democracy activists were stopped at the airport in Havana as they were on their way to Brussels to speak at the European Parliament today.

They were banned from leaving the country by the Cuban authorities. This is just one of many examples of the continuous human rights violations in Cuba.

Fearful of any form of organised dissent, the intention of the Cuban government is clearly to eradicate any structured support for democratic change. In January, Prisoners Defenders reported at least 126 political prisoners, while Instituto Patmos has shown that at least 226 activists were banned from travelling abroad during 2019.

The five democracy activists who were banned from leaving the country were supposed to present their ideas on what the EU could do to promote respect for human rights and democratisation in the country.

Their proposals form part of a report Civil Rights Defenders presents today – a total 30 letters from Cuban democracy activists and organisations – necessary contributions to the EU’s policy development, as the Union’s policy towards Cuba clearly needs to change.

Instead, the seminar at the European Parliament will be held with Cuban activists based outside the country, and five empty chairs – a vivid reminder of the current strategy’s shortcomings.

Shortly after the EU and Cuba signed its Agreement in 2016, the EU described the country as “a one-party democracy, in which elections take place at the municipal, provincial and national level”.

Weeks after the Agreement was provisionally applied, the Cuban ‘election process’ began at the municipal level. Among the tens of thousands of candidates running for assemblies across the country, not one represented the opposition.

When ‘elections’ to the provincial and national assemblies were held a couple of months later, only one candidate appeared on the ballot for each position.

Finally, as the new National Assembly met in April 2018, the official newspaper Granma reported that “Miguel Díaz-Canel received 99.83% of the votes cast” and became the new president of Cuba, replacing Raul Castro.

Although the EU and Cuba in their Agreement recall “their commitment to the recognised principles of democracy”, the EU remained silent on the sham elections and the transfer of power that followed. Apparently, it was all acceptable under the new Agreement.

Shortly after leaving the presidency, Raul Castro – who remains First Secretary of the Communist Party – presented his draft to a new constitution. In the months that followed, members of government-controlled mass organisations edited minor parts of the text, which were then presented to the public in a referendum.

The only legally sanctioned campaign in the country was the Yes-campaign and the government never thought to explain what the consequences of a No vote would be.

The constitution was approved during the spring of 2019, and although the language is slightly more modern, it sets the foundation for continued totalitarian rule.

The constitution affirms that “the socialist system this Constitution supports is irrevocable” and that “the Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Martiano, Fidelista, Marxist and Leninist … is the superior driving political force of the society and the State.” (Articles 4 and 5)

In July 2019, the National Assembly adopted a new election law that changed nothing in terms of allowing the Cubans to vote for different candidates, other than the ones hand-picked by the Communist party.

It even “excludes all kinds of individual electoral propaganda and any other action aimed at influencing the decision of the voters for or against any candidate” (Article 85).

Once again, the EU remained silent on whether the new constitution and election law complied with the principles of democracy and human rights set out in the Agreement.

When Federica Mogherini visited Cuba for the last time as High Representative for Foreign Affairs in September 2019, she rather perplexingly concluded that “after completing its generational transition and adopting a new Constitution, Cuba now faces major challenges in carrying out its economic modernization”.

There is nothing in the EU’s current position towards Cuba that makes its regime fear that it must change course and improve its respect for human rights and democracy.

The Cuban government instead realised that, after the Agreement had entered into force, it would have free rein to consolidate power indefinitely. And so now it is too late for the EU to begin a dialogue on the constitution or election law, as they have already been adopted.

Cuba thus remains a “one-party democracy” and the contradiction in this term sacrifices some of the very principles upon which the EU was founded, principles which are enshrined in its Charter; It surrenders the opportunity to stand up for civil and political rights in Cuba.

Reflecting on the stories of harassed and imprisoned activists in Cuba, we cannot afford to make such surrender again. The EU needs to change strategy if it wishes to stand for democracy in Cuba. It needs to build a formal and open dialogue with Cuba’s independent civil society.

Since the negotiations began on the Agreement in the spring of 2014, the EU has not invited civil society to a single formal discussion on the content of the Agreement or its implementation.

When the EU and Cuba held its human rights dialogue in October 2019, the Cuban government took the liberty to decide which European and Cuban organisations could participate.

The papers in the report we present today hold a great number of proposals and ideas. However, the two core messages that unite all are:

That both European and Cuban civil societies need to be recognised as formal partners to the EU in its relations to Cuba.

That the EU needs to speak out on the absence of democracy in Cuba and denounce all human rights violations.

The EU can never contribute to positive change in Cuba via a dialogue with the Cuban government. The only way is to give legitimacy and support to the civil society that openly and peacefully supports democratisation. It is time for the EU to include civil society in its relations with Cuba.

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