Skip to comments.Castro counts his friends as EU sides with Cuban dissidents
Posted on 06/11/2003 12:09:30 PM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba has watched the number of its friends dwindle after the European Union joined protests against a crackdown on dissidents by Fidel Castro, the island's veteran revolutionary leader.
Three months after EU Commissioner Poul Nielson and several Cuban ministers opened "a new era" in relations in Havana, a European diplomat said the latest events "will lead to a big freeze".
Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque protested Friday that the EU decision to restrict political and cultural relations was an "over-reaction," and Europe had "caved-in to . . . the battering waves of US policy toward Cuba."
For weeks, high level Cuban officials have stayed away from European diplomatic events in Havana, and European diplomats in turn were not invited to the huge May Day celebrations in the capital. European embassies now regularly invite dissidents and their families to their functions.
The United States has been stepping up pressure on Cuba for months -- but Castro can ill afford to completely lose Europe, which is Cuba's main trade partner, accounting for 34 percent of its foreign commerce.
Europe is also the main investor in Cuba, and provided 800,000 of the 1.7 million foreign visitors last year.
Cuba has faced widespread condemnation since Castro ordered a crackdown on dissidents that led to the imprisonment of 75 opponents, with sentences up to 28 years. A moratorium on executions was ended when three men who tried to hijack a small ferry to Florida were slain.
US President George W. Bush promised last month to keep supporting Cuba's dissidents, stressing that "dictatorships have no place in the Americas" in a special radio address for the 101st anniversary of Cuba's independence on May 20.
Bush also met 11 former Cuban political prisoners and their families, while 14 Cuban diplomats were recently expelled from the United States.
Washington demanded Monday that Cuba provide medical attention to a severely ill jailed dissident, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and pressed for medical care for others rounded up in a recent crackdown.
Like other countries on the US list of accused terrorist sponsors, Cuba has expressed fears that it will be the next country to be invaded after Iraq. But Washington has not focused publicly for long on the situation on the island of 11 million -- and Castro is not entirely friendless, particularly in Latin America.
The Cuban leader can count on the sympathy of Brazil's left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Castro recently attended the inauguration of Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, and was cheered by thousands when he gave an anti-US speech.
Washington also knows it has to be wary in dealings on Cuba, which can sour discussions of other issues with partners. It has agreed, for example, that Cuba will not be a top agenda item at the Organization of American States general assembly meeting in Santiago on Monday and Tuesday.
Cuban dissidents welcomed the European measures, announced by the Greek presidency of the EU on Thursday.
"These measures are totally just and necessary," said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission.
"The EU has clearly shown itself on the side of the Cuban people," he added.
Vladimiro Roca -- recently released from five years in prison and the spokesman for an opposition group called "All United" -- said the EU measures "will put matters in perspective for Cuba, where the government justifies its actions in the name of a bilateral conflict with the United States."
Tensions between Washington and Havana have soared since Cuba's recent jailing of the 75 political activists and executions.
In May US officials expelled 14 Cuban diplomats on espionage charges and is reportedly considering other measures.
Washington has had a full sanctions regime imposed on Cuba, the only one-party communist country in the Americas, for more than four decades.