Negotiators from the European Union (EU) concluded an initial round of talks with Cuban foreign ministry officials in Havana on 30 April in preparation for a new bilateral political dialogue and co-operation agreement,expected to be inked in 2015. The Cuban team was led by the deputy foreign minister, Abelardo Moreno. Christian Leffler, head of the Americas at the European External Action Service (EEAS), said that the two sides had established “the general structure” for future talks and “the principal elements to be included”.
Leffler noted that political and economic issues would be the first priority on the agenda, hinting that EU concerns about civil liberties and democratic participation would be addressed later. He said the two sides had not touched upon the EU ‘Common Position’ on Cuba, dating to 1996, which conditions full relations on democratic reform on the island, and which the Cuban government rejects outright as sovereign interference. Despite the Common Position, some 18 EU member countries have their own bilateral cooperation accords in place with Cuba, which critics say makes the Common Position somewhat redundant in practice, if not in theory.
There has been mounting pressure for a shift in EU-Cuba policy in recognition and support of Cuba’s economic ‘updating’; the mass release of political prisoners in 2010 (supported by Spain); and other incremental changes including last year’s reform to migration rules. In a historic visit to the island in January (the first by a senior Dutch official since the 1959 Cuban Revolution), the Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, called for a “revision” of EU policy towards Cuba, while on 12 April Laurent Fabius became the most high-ranking French minister to visit Cuba for more than 30 years. Fabius, who met his peer Bruno Rodríguez and President Raúl Castro, said Cuba’s approval of a new foreign investment law was “encouraging”.
However, in a 10 February statement announcing the European Council’s adoption of negotiating directives for an agreement with Cuba, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, said: “This is not a policy change from the past. Just as we want to support reform and modernisation in Cuba, we have consistently raised human rights concerns which will remain at the core of this relationship”. In other words, the Common Position is likely to remain in place for now, potentially until a Cuban ‘transition’ in 2018, when Castro has pledged to step aside (and at which point the US might also be better placed to engage more actively with the post-Castro administration).
The European Commission and the EEAS are jointly overseeing the talks. Observers say that the inclusion of the EEAS signals the concern of pro-Common Position countries like Germany, Sweden, and some of the former Communist States like Poland and the Czech Republic, to ensure that human rights issues are prioritised. Leffler gave no date for the next round.
State companies given more autonomy
New regulations published in Cuba’s official gazette on 29 April give Cuban state companies greater administrative and managerial autonomy, including allowing them to retain up to 50% of their earnings after taxes, 20% more than was cited when deregulation details for the state corporate sector were first unveiled back in July 2013. Companies will be permitted to sell surplus products at market prices to non-state third parties, and will be able to operate on the basis of plans approved by their boards, which will no longer be bound by the mandate of their respective ministry. Companies will be allowed to run their own payment systems, again free of consultation with ministries, and will no longer be obliged to return unused reserves to the government, but they will neither be allowed to import or export freely nor form mixed companies with private investors without prior government permission.
- Economic tendencies
Retired World Bank consultant Carlos Quijano told a Miami conference on Cuba that there are three economic tendencies in Cuba: ‘“statists” who want to largely retain the current model; “economicists” [sic], who favor some type of market socialism; and democratic socialists who favor broader use of cooperatives’, according to a 10 May report on the conference in the Miami Herald.