We discussed this issue with the like-minded earlier, even before the pandemic, which seems to have frozen all other political topics for a while. However, the problem still remains unsolved and, therefore, today, in the light of the history of Lithuania’s civil resistance, it is particularly important to bring back the situation of human rights and freedoms in Cuba, whose people have been struck by the pandemic even harder than democratic societies, MP and a former Minister of foreign affairs, Audronius Ažubalis writes.
At the moment, only the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, unlike the leadership at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is opposing the ratification of the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, which would open up new ways of survival for the Cuban dictatorship. After the US-based Cuban human rights activists, who sought to explain the practical consequences of this agreement, visited Lithuania in late February, a part of the public remained convinced that this issue was underpinned by loud moral arguments only, referring to the period of our own struggle for freedom.
This is partly due to the lack of information, in the public space, on how the US, our security ally, views this issue. The US decision to renew sanctions reveals why it is naive, in this context, to believe the claims of some EU Member States that dialogue with the communists is the only alternative in the current situation.
This can be illustrated by the practical actions of the Cuban government when in the face of the current pandemic, according to the information from the Cuban authorities, more than 800 health professionals are now seconded abroad to combat it. In turn, the Trump’s administration continues its policy of tightening the sanctions and unequivocally calls on other countries in the world to refrain from hiring Cuban medical workers, who are victims of the 21st-century human trafficking, claiming that ‘the government of Cuba keeps most of the salary its doctors and nurses earn while serving in its international medical missions while exposing them to egregious labour conditions.’ The US Department of State displays a similar official position that ‘host countries seeking Cuba’s help for COVID-19 should scrutinize agreements and end labour abuses.’
Perhaps those who do not closely follow US foreign policy still believe that the US continues with the policy of former President Barack Obama, which marked the warming of the US-Cuba relations. However, the warm bilateral relations deteriorated significantly after Trump’s arrival at the White House. The current US government has renounced Obama’s unproductive policy of appeasement and imposed new sanctions against Cuba, including new travel and remittance restrictions, a cruise ban, and the closure of consular services in Havana.
The US policy vis-a-vis Cuba has been consistently tightened. US President Trump announced, in June last year, that the US banned American cruise ships from stopping in Cuba, causing Havana to reduce its tourism targets for 2019. The harsh US rhetoric in October was accompanied by even tougher sanctions, namely extending restrictions on exports of foreign goods containing American-made components to Cuba and further restrictions on Cuba’s tourism sector, which is the country’s main source of foreign income. This was a response to the support by the Cuban special services and military instructors to the criminal regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.
In his third State of the Union Address, in early February this year, Trump clearly expressed his support to the hopes of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to restore democracy. ‘As we restore American leadership throughout the world, we are once again standing up for freedom in our hemisphere. That is why my administration reversed the failing policies of the previous administration on Cuba,’ said Trump.
Meanwhile, the outcomes of the EU policy towards dialogue can be well illustrated by the following wording. Having regard to its previous resolutions on Cuba, in its newest Resolution of 28 November 2019 on Cuba, the case of José Daniel Ferrer, the European Parliament merely expresses its regret that, despite the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, signed in December 2016 and provisionally applied as of 1 November 2017, the situation of democracy and human rights has not improved, as arbitrary detentions, torture, and ill-treatment, as well as regular persecution, harassment of and attacks against peaceful dissidents, independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political opposition continues. The Resolution deeply regrets the fact that the Cuban authorities refused to allow Parliament, its delegations, and some political groups to visit Cuba despite Parliament granting its consent to the PDCA. This position is highly typical for today’s EU foreign policy, which is utterly incapable.
Thus, the US administration strives to restore democracy in Latin America in a way different from that of the EU. Before deciding which way will prove more appropriate in the long run, we should bear in mind that the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement provides that ‘the Parties agree to make available the appropriate resources, including financial means, insofar as their respective resources and regulations allow, in order to fulfil the cooperation objectives set out in this Agreement.’
This means that all European financial players and agencies for cooperation and development can in principle, provide funds to support this cooperation agreement. Immediately after the ratification of the agreement by all EU Member States, the Cuban regime could receive billions of euros of credit, as well as benefit from modern technologies, trade and exchange of goods and assets, all of which would help the dictatorship to survive.
On the moral side, human trafficking and exploitation of forced labour, as defined in international law, are among the main sources of income for the Cuban regime. The letter of November 2019 from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery to the Cuban government, signed by Maria Grazia Giammarinaro and Urmila Bhoola, expresses concern over the forced labour practised by the Cuban regime, while also uncovering the functioning of Cuba’s entire system of trafficking in its citizens. Initially people receive free education, but then doctors and other professionals spend on average three years working at the so-called foreign medical missions (e.g. Mais Medicos) in different countries.
Where the government of the host country pays directly to Cuban employees, the latter are obliged to pass on to their government between 75 % and 90 % of their monthly salary. Nevertheless, they have to accept this as a significant improvement in their financial situation because on the island, doctors usually earn less than USD 100 per month. Unfortunately, this vicious circle is difficult to break, since Article 135(1) of the Cuban Criminal Code states that an official, in this case, a doctor, who refuses to go on a mission or refuses to return to Cuba after its completion, is subject to imprisonment for a term of three to eight years. According to the forced labour indicators developed by the International Labour Organization, it seems that the current working conditions described in the letter are equivalent to forced labour. In contrast, forced labour is a contemporary form of slavery.
The case brought against the Mais Medicos programme run in Brazil has reached the US Federal Court. Recordings of conversations between high-ranking Cuban officials and the administrations of Brazilian leftist presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef slipped into the public domain in 2012, revealing discussions on the ways of circumventing Brazilian legislation and US federal law by making use of the Pan American Health Organization, a UN regional body, as an illegal intermediary to implement the above-mentioned scheme of trade in medical staff.
The scope and scale of the presence of the Cuban regime in Latin America are also proved by the support of Venezuela’s Maduro regime. The open secret is that the proceeds from illegal trade, mainly drug trafficking, related money laundering, and human trafficking enable the Maduro regime and its puppets to hold the citizens in their iron grip.
However, when evaluating the practical consequences of the EU-Cuba cooperation agreement for the EU and, therefore, Lithuania, it is important to recall an agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada signed in 2018. Article 23.1(b) of this agreement expressly prohibits any forced labour and provides for the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour.
Therefore, any state willing to engage in trade with the US would find it extremely problematic to hire Cuban medical personnel under the conditions that have been proven and confirmed as forced labour and slave-like treatment during the previous missions within the Cuban Medical Internationalism or to maintain commercial relations with the Cuban regime that applies this practice. Thus, the Cuban regime violates not only international law and US law but also the EU legal system and each international law regulation on combating trafficking in human beings and money laundering.
The Democrats and the Republicans have submitted to the US Congress the resolutions condemning this practice. One of the resolutions was co-authored by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Democrat Senator Bob Menéndez, and Republican Senator Rick Scott.
The concern of our main security allies in the US about our decision in relation to the EU-Cuba agreement is also evidenced by the letter from the above-mentioned senators to Lithuania’s Ambassador in the US. Their letter underlines the joint fight of our countries for human rights and democratic values and calls for opposing any agreement that would ‘provide economic assistance to the brutal communist regime in Cuba’.
The Lithuanian Parliament is urged to reject this agreement and stand in solidarity with the Cuban people. This comes in addition to the letter from US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis with the explicit request for non-ratification of this agreement. Therefore, it is pointless self-deception for anyone to believe that this issue is far away from Lithuania and of no consequence for our relations with the US.
I suggest, however, that Lithuania should refrain from merely taking the position of rejecting the agreement and abandoning efforts to improve the situation in Cuba. I just want to show that the form of dialogue taken by the EU fails to produce actual results. On the contrary, the situation is only getting worse. Lithuania’s position should become an opportunity for the EU to draw up a road map for concluding the EU-Cuba cooperation agreement. The road map should very clearly detail, in periods of months or years, the commitments of the Cuban government in the area of democracy and human rights, while EU financial-economic and technological support would be contingent on the successful implementation of the measures envisaged by the road map.
 In particular those of 17 November 2004 on Cuba, of 2 February 2006 on the EU’s policy towards the Cuban Government, of 21 June 2007 on Cuba, of 11 March 2010 on prisoners of conscience in Cuba, of 5 July 2017 on the draft Council decision on the conclusion, on behalf of the European Union, of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA) between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Cuba, of the other part and of 15 November 2018.
 European Parliament resolution on Cuba, the case of José Daniel Ferrer, 2019
https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2019-0200_EN.html [accessed on 12/5/2020]
Mandatos de la Relatora Especial sobre las formas contemporáneas de la esclavitud, incluidas sus causas y consecuencias; y de la Relatora Especial sobre la trata de personas, especialmente mujeres y niños,2019,<https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=24868&fbclid=IwAR0ljO8BySuUSedby22RKAPZQ4DGkjVt_U9iLEmzJaPBlYJn8WgA70qqha8> [accessed on 12/5/2020].
 Office of the United States trade representative, “Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada 12/13/19 Text”, 2019 <https://ustr.gov/trade-agreements/free-trade-agreements/united-states-mexico-canada-agreement/agreement-between> [accessed on 12/5/2020]
 Congress.gov, “S.Res.14 – A resolution affirming that the Government of Cuba’s foreign medical missions constitute human trafficking”, 2019 <https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-resolution/14/text> [accessed on 12/5/2020]