THE diplomatic sanctions imposed by the European Union after Cuba jailed 75 dissidents in 2003 were hardly painful. They mainly consisted of restricting political contacts and inviting dissidents to embassy functions, prompting a boycott by Cuban officials that became known as the “cocktail war”. The sanctions were suspended in 2005. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision on June 19th to lift them was symbolically important. It was another small indication that as Cuba edges towards life after Fidel Castro, relations between the communist island and the outside world are evolving too.
The EU’s decision was a surprise. The socialist government in Spain—the largest European investor in Cuba—has long wanted closer ties. Last year its foreign minister began regular talks with his Cuban counterpart. But the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, together with Sweden, were reluctant to drop the sanctions while most of the dissidents arrested in 2003 remain in jail.
They were won over by the notion that things are starting to change in Cuba, especially since Fidel Castro formally handed over the presidency to his brother, Raúl, in February. Mainly this has involved small economic steps, such as dropping bans on Cubans owning various consumer durables and turning more state land over to private farming. In lifting the sanctions, the EU reiterated its calls for Cuba to release all political prisoners, implement the international human-rights covenants that it recently signed, and make “real progress towards a pluralist democracy”.
Cuba’s reaction to the EU’s move was itself telling. In an article on a Cuban website, Fidel Castro fulminated against “enormous hypocrisy” (because the EU also agreed a streamlined procedure to expel illegal migrants, who include many Latin Americans). Europe, he said, wanted “impunity for those who would hand [Cuba] over to imperialism”. But in an apparent sign that it is no longer taboo to disagree with the comandante, Cuba’s foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, described the move as “a step in the right direction”.
The United States is unlikely to follow Europe’s lead. According to Caleb McCarry, whom George Bush appointed as his “Cuba transition co-ordinator”, Raúl Castro’s government would need to free all political prisoners, allow civil and political freedom and open “a pathway to free and fair elections” before America would relax its 46-year trade embargo. Such changes are unlikely as long as Fidel lives, and are not inevitable thereafter.
Any change in American policy therefore depends on the outcome of the presidential election. Barack Obama has said that he would reverse restrictions on remittances and family visits to Cuba imposed by Mr Bush. That might be a prelude to bigger policy changes. John McCain would maintain the existing policy.
As for Latin America, it has no appetite for isolating Cuba, says José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States. Since illness forced Fidel to turn over his powers two years ago, several Latin American countries have sought closer relations with Cuba. In January Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, visited the island with a string of businessmen in tow, signing trade and investment deals worth $1 billion.
Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, has reversed his predecessor’s policy of speaking out against the lack of human rights in Cuba, and has restored his country’s traditionally close ties. Earlier this year Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s foreign minister, renegotiated $400m of debt on which Cuba had defaulted. Cultural exchanges have increased, and Mr Calderón is expected to visit Havana soon.
This closer embrace of Cuba mixes self-interest with calculation. In Mexico, as in the United States and Spain, Cuba is a domestic political issue. Some commentators argue that in repairing relations, Mr Calderón hopes to appease the left-wing opposition, which disputed his election victory in 2006. Instability in Cuba, just 135 miles (220km) away across the Yucatán Channel, could pose a security threat to Mexico, argues Luis Rubio, a political analyst.
Both Brazil and Mexico see business opportunities on the island, especially since Fidel’s successors are likely to be more open to foreign investment. And though they won’t say so publicly, diplomats from these countries see closer ties as a way of balancing the influence of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, who has replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s main provider of aid. Unlike Mr Chávez, they will quietly support political liberalisation in Cuba, they say. They believe that Raúl Castro worries about Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela and China. Some officials in Washington accept this argument, and say they are happy to see Latin American democracies seeking influence where the United States cannot.
However, not everyone in Latin America or Europe takes that view. Supporters of the jailed dissidents were critical of the EU’s move. Over the past two decades, Latin American governments, egged on by outsiders, have signed international agreements that oblige them to support democracy and human rights in the region. In disregarding these when it comes to Cuba, both they and the EU are being irresponsible, says Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister.
What is certainly true is that those who argue for constructive engagement as a way to bring change in Cuba have little to show for it so far. But the American trade embargo has failed even more manifestly, as well as inflicting harm on ordinary Cubans. So far, change in Cuba has come in tiny, glacial movements. Many outsiders are betting that over the next year or two the pace will increase