What the EU Visit to Cuba Portends

Representative Josep Borrell Backs Business, Turns Blind Eye to Rights Violations

What the EU visit to Cuba portends. On May 25–27, 2023, Josep Borrell—EU head of diplomacy—went to Havana, Cuba.

When Borrell arrived on the island, 14 political prisoners were hunger-striking for around 15 days. (Sebastián Díaz)

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Key Findings:

  • When EU Representative Josep Borrell visited Cuba on May 25–27, at least 14 political prisoners were hunger striking for the regime to free all political prisoners across the island. Borrell barely mentioned the political prisoners or rights violations.
  • Borrell’s visit focused on Cuba’s economic development, so he met with a handful of approved local business owners. Further, although lacking details, he announced the creation of an EU-bankrolled $15 million fund to educate and assist local businesses.
  • The European Union’s official actions towards Cuba generated heated debate in the June sessions of the European Parliament. Members of Parliament questioned why the European Union had failed to talk about the dictatorship’s oppression of citizens.
  • Over the past 12 months, Cuba—in addition to meeting with EU officials—has been strengthening its diplomatic and economic ties with both Russia and China.


On May 25–27, 2023, Josep Borrell—EU head of diplomacy—went to Havana, Cuba. Borrell said the visit was “necessary and an obligation,” due to the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA) between the European Union and Cuba, signed in 2016. This agreement purports to promote “sustainable development, democracy, and human rights.”

In Havana, Borrell announced that EU and Cuban officials will “likely celebrate a dialogue for human rights in November.” However, he said that the European Union’s objective of the May visit was to “go along with Cuba in its current process of economic and social restructuring.”

During his visit, Borrell announced the creation of a fund of $15 million (€14 million) to promote, largely via education, small local businesses on the island. He claimed this fund would “help solidify the relationship of mutual respect between the European Union and Cuba.” However, he failed to provide further details on the fund nor whether the Miguel Díaz-Canel-led regime would manage that money.

After the visit, Borrell expressed gratitude to his team and enthusiasm for EU-Cuban cooperation: “Leaving Cuba, I thank the entire delegation for their great work to advance EU priorities and cooperation projects.” During his entire visit, Borrell barely mentioned the freedom and rights violations perpetrated by the regime. He said the regime’s politicization of justice is “still a matter of concern.”

Strengthening Ties with Russia and China

During his visit, Borrell asserted that Cuba plays an “important geopolitical role,” being chair in 2023 of the G77—a UN-created group of developing countries. Cuba, apart from meeting with the European Union, has continued to strengthen its ties with its anti-Western allies China and Russia.

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation on June 8, the Cuban and the Chinese regimes signed an agreement for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to install a new spy base on the island, around 100 miles away from Florida. The report asserts that “the CCP would have to pay the Cuban regime billions of dollars.” The Wall Street Journal expects that, with the new base, the CCP will be able to interfere with electronic communications from Florida and monitor ship traffic nearby.

US officials—anonymous due to the sensitive topic—have revealed that this has been an “ongoing issue and not a new development.” According to US intelligence, the CCP upgraded its spy facilities on the island in 2019. Cuban Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío, however, characterized the investigation as “totally mendacious” and claimed that Cuba “rejects all foreign military presence in Latin America.”

Cuban regime officials have also met with Russian officials. In a press conference in Russia on June 11, Cuban officials announced new plans to strengthen their economic relations. For example, Russian investors will be able to rent state-managed land for 30 years. Further, Cuban authorities will provide “special conditions for Russian investors.” These special conditions include tax-free imports of agricultural equipment to the island, allowing investors to bring their earnings back to Russia, and authorization for Russian banks to open branches on the island and use the Russian ruble.

Cuban economist Pavel Vidal contends that, after the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba was even more isolated economically. He perceives Cuba resuming its approach to Russia as a search for economic survival and integration.

EU Defiance of US Trade Embargo

Since 1988, the European Union and Cuba have had ongoing diplomatic and commercial relations. Given US sanctions on Cuba, the European Union is Cuba’s largest trading partner and foreign investor in the country. Further, the European Union was the second largest source of tourists from January to April 2023, behind only Canada. The United States and Russia are the third and fourth largest sources of tourists, respectively.

Borrell said during his visit to the island that the European Union currently “represents one-third of total foreign investment in Cuba.” Meanwhile, both China and Russia represent only 8 percent each. “This shows that we [the European Union] are more important to Cuba than other actors such as China and Russia,” he concluded.

In 2016, with the objective of “supporting a transition in the Cuban economy and improvement in the conditions of society,” Cuba and the European Union signed the PDCA. It became effective in 2017. Although the PDCA focuses on “sustainable development, democracy, and human rights,” Borrell’s latest visit focused on economic cooperation and support for local business owners.

Borrell’s visit to Cuba has sparked negative reactions from multiple members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In the June 13 session of the parliament, Spanish MEP Leopoldo López Gil contended EU officials, during Borrell’s visit to Havana, “pretended the situation on the island is normal and ignored public meetings with family members of political prisoners.” Even leftist MEP Jordi Solé, also of Spain, added that the US embargo on the island is not the cause of all the islands’ challenges.

Other MEPs, including the vice president, even suggested that the European Union should suspend the PDCA.

On June 7, Swedish Congressman Markus Wiechel announced a formal petition to the Swedish government, as chair of the European Union, to stop EU funding of the Cuban regime. For Wiechel, it is inconsistent that the European Union sanctions Russia economically but finances the Castrista dictatorship.

Political Prisoners in Critical Condition

In May, there were 1,037 political prisoners in Cuba under the Castrista regime led by Díaz-Canel, according to a report from the NGO Prisoners Defenders. When Borrell arrived on the island, 14 political prisoners were hunger-striking for around 15 days. They were asking the regime for the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Although numbers are scant, NGO 11J Justice reports at least three political prisoners have died in 2023. For example, Carlos López—a 22-year-old prisoner—died on May 30, allegedly due to the lack of medical care inside the regime’s prison. López had chest pain for weeks. He later collapsed and died. Even one minor died in prison in February. However, Borrell never made a public statement regarding this.

A member of Borrell’s delegation, during his visit to the island in May, met “with family members of multiple political prisoners from the latest protests [in the Cuban province of Camagüey],” Borrell confirmed in a June 12 interview in Spain. However, he failed to provide further details on these private meetings. He then expressed: “Cuba is not the only country with human-rights violations issues. There are many others whom we have an excellent relationship with.”

Despite the Cuban regime’s approaches to its two anti-Western allies—China and Russia—EU officials continue to enhance the federation’s economic relationship with the dictatorship. It is unclear, though, whether MEPs will allow deeper economic cooperation with Cuba in the future, as many expressed dissent regarding the latest visit.

Mauro Echeverría

Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.

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