This article was written together with Rolf Otto Niederstrasser
Frank- Walter Steinmeier's historic visit to Cuba on June 2015 was the first of a German foreign minister to the island in 25 years. After 1996, Germany's approach to Cuba aligned with the EU's "Common Position." This policy promoted by Spanish president Jose Aznar, unlike the U.S. regime approach towards the island, pushed for a relationship based on market oriented economic development and political openness. In practice due to European lack of cohesive action and vulnerability to U.S. pressures, Cuba's relationship with the EU became dependent on short term and narrow views on human rights improvements.
The 1996 "Common Position" became an obstacle for the EU's goals. Even though this policy was less interventionist than the US embargo, it limited the political spillovers of an active and stable business and security cooperation. Cuba protested arguing that the policy was an infringement to its sovereignty and a subordination of Europe to the U.S. regime change agenda.
By the 2000's Cuba's growing economic and political ties to Venezuela and China made the island less dependent on the EU overall. As a result, EU policy didn't influence Cuba like European diplomats had hoped for. In 1998, Brussels reached an understanding with Washington accepting the implementation of the extraterritoriality of the Helms-Burton law compromising its principle position of a common policy towards Cuba, independent from Washington's pressures. The EU-Cuba relationship worsened from there on. In 2003 the Cuban government imprisoned 75 dissidents on the basis they were agents at the service of the United States' regime change agenda. As a response to the "Black Spring," the EU ended talks and imposed sanctions on Cuba.
It wasn't until 2010 that relations improved. Cuba released all of the political prisoners. By then, Fidel Castro had retired passing the presidency to his younger brother Raul. In 2009 Louis Michel, European Union's development commissioner visited Cuba to explore a normalization of relations with the island, going beyond the established policy: "I think that if the European Union does not consolidate the normalization of relations with Cuba," Michel said, "the Americans will do so before us."
Germany's position had been until then of bilateral estrangement and lack of communication. Before the reunification of Germany in 1990, the The German Democratic Republic (GDR) had a deep partnership with Cuba. About 30,000 Cubans studied or worked in Germany. After the reunification, the new Germany assumed a clear ideological agenda that repudiated ties with communist countries, including Cuba. Germany in that way missed a good opportunity to establish a fluent commercial and cultural relation with Cuba based on the legacy of a close relation with the GDR.
The years of the SPD-Greens Coalition in government could have been a politically a fertile ground for influencing Cuba from the democratic left but paradoxically the opportunities were wasted. Cuba was an area in which the SPD moved to the right and away from the positive legacy of goodwill developed by Willy Brandt in the seventies and eighties with his Ostpolitik and the special ties with the Latin American left.
But Cuba's allies in Germany did not cease to advocate for a better bilateral ties. The "Die Freundschaftsgesellschaft BRD-Kubae.V" or, "The Friendship Association between Federal Republic of Germany and Cuba" was founded in 1974. It is the oldest organization advocating friendship between both nations. Günter Pohl, the First chairman of the organization, believes that Germany had finally recognized the importance of normalizing relations with Cuba: "Germany has realized that it could eventually fall behind the activities of the United States at the opening towards Cuba," he said. "After some European Union countries had not fully supported the blockade policy of the United States like Spain, Germany had a certain allegiance to the US tries to further enforce "common position of the European Union.Now Germany's Foreign Ministry has been surprised by the apparently developments since December 2014 and is trying to make up lost ground."
Die Linke has been the only political force pushing for engagement. In a recent speech, Linke founder Oskar Lafontaine, argued social welfare cuts and hostile foreign policy made him separate from the Social Democrats (SPD) and create a new party. Before retiring from the political world due to health reasons, he visited Cuba in 2008 as part of an initiative by the European Parliament to deepen ties again. In an interview to the Cuban national newspaper Granma Lafontaine said: "We believe that the EU needs to change its policy towards Cuba. Only a good cooperation brings good results."
With Cuban minister of foreign relations Bruno Rodriguez's visit to Germany a new chapter of cooperation seems to open. Steinmeier went to Cuba to normalize ties. Rodriguez went to Germany to expand them. It is clear that Germany and Cuba want to capitalize on this opportunity. Until now, Cuba was in 101st place among the nations Berlin exports to and in 125th place among the nations it imports from. In 2014, German exports to Cuba were worth about EUR 191 million and imports about EUR 33 million. To strengthen ties, the German embassy in Cuba developed cultural and educational micro programs implemented through church-affiliated organizations to help bilateral relations in more recent years.
In 2014 Germany restarted the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). This initiative facilitated German students to study and research in Cuba and vice versa. According to the German embassy in Havana, 100 scholarships are awarded to German students and 295 to Cubans to study in Germany. The programs vary from investigative research positions for young scientists to Masters in Public Policy and Good Governance. The expansion in the student exchange programs has been accompanied by a growing interest of private enterprises. German airlines like Condor and Lufthansa are increasing their travel schedules to Cuba. In 2014, Germany remained second as Cuba's second largest market of foreign tourists, after Canada, with more than 136,000 visitors, an increase of 20 per cent compared to the previous year.
But overall Germany's policy hasn't really been focused on Cuba like other European countries. Tobias Schwab, director of "Casa Alemania," an organization that supports German companies to do business in Cuba, argues: "German policy has been too focused on U.S. policy. Investments have been overshadowed by this political and cultural agenda."
In May 2015, the German Commerzbank was sentenced to a fine of 1.7 billion US dollars because of transactions with Cuba. According to the U.S. Treasury, Commerzbank agreed to pay $175,500 to settle apparent violations of Cuban asset control regulations that occurred in September 2005. The European Union is at a crossroads. On one hand European countries believe raprochement with the Cuban government will promote peaceful change in Cuba. This position comes with growing engagement with the island in the last years. On the other hand, the Helms Burton laws signed by former U.S. President Clinton in 1996 discourage and sanction further commitment with Cuba's government. For Germany though, Cuba has not been a priority until recently.
In early 2016, 60 German companies in the delegation such as Volkswagen, Siemens and Bosch accompanied Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the three-day trip. There, he met with Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and other ministers. The two countries reaffirmed the intention to open a liaison office for German companies. Cuban officials presented a portfolio of investment projects they wanted to interest the German companies in, worth a total of $9 billion. This is a substantial increase from prior economic engagement. Germany has been Cuba's fourth-biggest trade partner in Europe. Their bilateral trade was worth $378 million in 2014.
There are clear signals for a better relationship between both countries. In his interview to the German press in Cuba, Gabriel talked about negotiations "between two equal partners." But he argued, "There is still a lot to do." Mr. Rodriguez's visit includes not only a meeting with his host, Foreign Affairs Minister Steinmeier but also a dialogue with local authorities with a favorable agenda towards Havana.