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 Cuba.
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 marked 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?
Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Relations, Strategic Studies Group, Madrid
Originally published in The Brussels Journal
Also published as “Coddling Cuba” in Front Page Magazine