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Germany is a country with a promising and firm agenda regarding democratic values, peace, security and liberty. In practice, however, the country shows contradictory behavior when it comes to implementing this agenda in countries where democracy is threatened, like it is the case in Cuba: an autocratic country in which severe violations of the fundamental rights of its population are registered.
The German Government supports projects to improve the quality of life and promotes respect for human rights all around the world. The country is a contracting party to the UN’s main human rights treaties and their Additional Protocols. Following the country’s firm stance on human rights violations, Germany's intervention during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cuba at the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 was highly critical of Cuba’s human rights record. For instance, Germany condemned Cuba's reprisals against human rights defenders, including against persons associated with the UPR. It also recommended Cuba to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights without delay; to fully cooperate with human rights mechanisms and grant them unhindered access to Cuba, including to government officials, civil society organizations, human rights defenders, to prisons and detention centers. Also, Germany recommended that Cuba review all legal prohibitions, including Article 62 of the Constitution (which was later amended in 2019) which unduly restricted access to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, to bring them in line with international laws and standards. Finally, Germany also recommended that Cuba immediately stop arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment of activists peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
Therefore, Germany expressed, through its recommendations, one of the strongest and most critical positions regarding the human rights situation in Cuba. Nevertheless, the Cuban regime has shown no intention of following any of these recommendations. Human Right Watch World Report 2021 documents arbitrary arrests and detentions that harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, political opponents and others. Detainees are reported to be beaten, threatened, and held incommunicado for hours or days at a time. It is part of the political and social reality in Cuba, that political prisoners are criminally prosecuted without due process, given that, in practice, courts are subordinate to the executive and legislative authorities. Since the government controls virtually all media in Cuba and limits access to outside information, there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression. In July 2019, Decree Law 370/2018 on the " informatization of society" took effect, which prohibits the dissemination of information "contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of persons".
When confronted with its human rights record, the Cuban regime often invokes the principle of non-intervention in another state’s domestic affairs. However, in practice, Cuba itself does not follow this principle in its foreign policy towards other countries. In the specific case of Germany, for example, the Cuban government has maintained relations with the German opposition. In fact, there have been frequent meetings between Ambassador Ramón Ripoll and German political parties, one of them sitting in parliament, and different groups that support the Cuban regime. Information on these meetings can be verified on the website of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the respective embassy. The groups and parties that met with the Cuban Ambassador include the Left Party (DIE LINKE), the Network of Solidarity with Cuba in Germany (Netzwerk Cuba e.V.), the Bavarian University Centre for Latin America (BAYLAT), the German Communist Party (DKP), the Germany-Central America Parliamentary Group, the Socialist German Workers' Youth (SDAJ), the Germany-Cuba Friendship Society, among others.
Despite Germany's strong commitment to human rights and democracy, the serious misconduct of the Cuban government, and the fact that Cuban diplomats meet with the opposition in Germany in complete freedom, the German embassy in Havana has not had regular exchanges with independent civil society groups in Cuba for a decade. These exchanges, however, appear to be extremely necessary. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2021, the measures taken by the Cuban government have put Cuban civil society in an extremely vulnerable position. And they continue to do so as these measures have intensified in the first months of this year.
From a committed human rights diplomacy to the EU's soft side
Twice, Germans have won the Award for Committed Human Rights Diplomacy in Cuba, an award organized by CADAL which has already had six editions. They were awarded for their commitment during the periods of 2003-2008 and 2009-2010. The fact that no democratic activist has nominated a German diplomat for the award in the last four editions of the prize, is a clear indicator of Germany's regression regarding the active human rights work of its embassy in Havana.
The truth is that a decade has passed since a German diplomat was awarded a prize for their humanitarian work in Cuba, and it is still legally impossible for local opposition groups to formally associate (much less form a political party). While the Cuban regime continues to deploy its revolutionary diplomacy from its two legate jurisdictions in Germany, Berlin and Bonn, the winds of freedom do no longer blow from the German embassy in Havana, which, on the contrary, does not even consider applying the principle of reciprocity and meet with the Cuban opposition.
It is curious that the German backtracking in Havana, in its recognition and moral support for democrats in Cuba, coincided with the publication of the 2014 almanac entitled "Human Beings for Human Rights".
The German Foreign Office dedicated its 2014 almanac to human rights and included Cuban independent journalist Yoani Sánchez in week 27 as a protagonist of the struggle for "the right to the internet". The publication stated that "the defense of human rights is a pillar of German foreign policy". It added: "Germany understands its commitment to human rights also as a responsibility to its own history" and cited among several cases "the oppression in the GDR". It should be remembered that Cuban intelligence was instructed by the dreaded Stasi, a fact that came to light thanks to the work of Joachim Gauck, who later became Federal President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In the introduction to the almanac Gauck states categorically: "it is necessary to transcend borders in order to impose human rights in the way intended by the international community: with universal validity, without limitations and conditions, for all human beings, just because they are human beings".
Funnily enough, this almanac, distributed for example in Argentina, was never received by Yoani Sánchez in Havana.
At the end of 2014, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany in Berlin had assured that a high-level visit to Cuba was conditional on it including a meeting with opposition leaders. They even made it clear that they would not have the same attitude as other European countries, in a clear reference to the visit made that year to Cuba by the then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
However, during the official trip to Havana by the then Foreign Minister and current German Head of State, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on 16 and 17 July 2015, there was no meeting with Cuban democratic representatives. This visit was considered historic, as it was the first German Federal Foreign Minister to travel to Cuba since German reunification. According to information published by the German embassy in Cuba, the aim of the trip was to expand relations "in the wake of the careful opening up of the Caribbean country". A point in Steinmeier's favor was that he did not meet with Fidel Castro, as the long-lived dictator did not hold any official position. Also, he interceded for the release of the writer Angel Santiesteban-Prats.
Notwithstanding Germany’s role as a world power with a leading position within the European Union, and despite its exemplary attitude towards Cuba in the UN Human Rights Council, Germany has become soft with Havana, indifferent to repression and inconsistent with its own historical memory.
Translated by Dorothea Krueger.