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EU’s Foreign Policy representative Borrell begins his trip to Cuba with support for the island’s private sector

The European Union is willing to collaborate in the deepening of the country’s economic reform

Josep Borrell Fontelles
Josep Borrell, the head of European diplomacy, during an official act in Havana.YANDER ZAMORA (REUTERS)

Josep Borrell’s first trip to Havana as high representative of Foreign Policy for the European Union began on Thursday with a clear show of support to the increasingly important Cuban private sector and a message to the authorities that Brussels is willing to collaborate in the deepening of the economic reform taking place on the island, as the country is going through one of the worst crises in its history, which has resulted in unprecedented social unrest. Borrell’s visit, which will last until Saturday, comes at a particularly complex moment for the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, which in recent months has exponentially increased its economic and political rapprochement with Russia. Given this situation, European diplomacy is trying to keep the channels of dialogue and influence open, preserving the spaces created since 2017 with the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the EU, which put an end to the two decades of estrangement that involved the so-called European common position promoted by former Spanish President José María Aznar.

Within this dialogue, of utmost importance for the EU, is the always delicate issue of progress in the field of human rights, which will be discussed on Friday in the official talks and which generates quite a few frictions on the Cuban side, although at least now it can be officially discussed. For Havana, one of the key issues is the European condemnation of the U.S. embargo and support for its diplomatic efforts to get the Biden Administration to remove the island from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, something that Borrell has already raised in the past with his Washington counterparts, although nothing has moved so far. The image in Cuba, basically, continues to be that of a cold war, with Russia ever closer and immersed in the war in Ukraine and the Cuban government entrenched against U.S. policy, which it considers the cause of all its ills. In this scenario, Europe is playing its cards, which are of “constructive” but at the same time “critical” engagement on various issues; that is, not to break the deck and little by little to achieve progress.

In the midst of the current galloping crisis, the green light given in 2021 to the creation of private MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises), with legal personality and up to 100 workers, has opened a new scenario on the island. Nearly 8,000 have already been created, and although they still operate with many bureaucratic obstacles, they have changed Cuba’s economic panorama -one out of every three Cubans now works in the private sector, which contributes almost 12% of the GDP, a reality unthinkable just a decade ago.

Precisely, Borrell’s first public act in Cuba was a meeting with representatives of the new MSMEs, who explained to him the potential of this opening and the problems they face for their businesses to prosper. “We know that the current context is full of challenges for MSMEs and new economic actors, but also of formidable opportunities,” said the head of European diplomacy, noting that the EU was at their service “to support them and work with the authorities in the search for solutions to make their contribution to society more viable.”

The EU is committed to working with the relevant Cuban ministries to exchange “best practices and experiences” in terms of legislation that contribute to the modernization of the economy and stimulate MSMEs in various ways - with training courses, technical support, advice, access to financing, etc. - and also contribute to greater legal certainty, said Borrell. In the afternoon, he was scheduled to meet with European businessmen - the EU is a leader in investment and trade with the island - to also express their support and backing. In the period 2021-2024, the EU plans to invest 91 million euros in various collaboration agreements, of which 14 million euros are earmarked for the emerging MSME sector, a figure that could increase in the coming years.

On his first day in Cuba he also held a meeting with the Cuban episcopate, and on Friday he will meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to hold the third EU-Cuba Joint Council, as part of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the European Union. The last physical meeting of this format was held in September 2019, when EU diplomacy was still in the hands of Federica Mogherini. A month later, Borrell traveled to Havana, albeit in his capacity as Spanish foreign minister, on one of his last missions before taking over the diplomatic portfolio from the Italian, in December of that year. Two years later, in 2021, with Borrell at the helm, the appointment was limited to a mere informal meeting by videoconference, due to the pandemic.

Prior to Borrell’s trip to Cuba several NGOs asked him to address in his high-level talks the issue of the more than 700 prisoners from the massive demonstrations of July 11, 2021 -something Borrell already condemned at the time- and to demand their release. How the issue will be touched upon, and whether the head of European diplomacy will ask for some kind of “gesture” from the Cuban side, is not known. It is presumable that it will happen, but in any case it will be in a discreet way, since the current European position is to keep the channels of communication open in order to exert influence, besides the fact that Borrell’s visit must also be read in a multilateral key, as part of the approach of the EU to the Latin American and Caribbean countries on the eve of the next EU-CELAC summit, to be held in Brussels on July 17 and 18. European sources point out that Cuba is an “important voice” among developing countries as president pro tempore of the group of 134 developing countries that make up the G-77+China. And if Cuba asks Europe to become more actively involved in getting the U.S. to change its policy of suffocation and remove the island from the list of countries that do not collaborate in the fight against terrorism, the old diplomatic dilemma of “help me and I will help you” is there again.

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