- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Last year rumors swirled that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would honor Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with an invitation to Germany. The trip never materialized. But last week Mr. Schroeder sent his economics minister, Werner Mueller, to schmooze with Fidel. And schmooze they did.

With a big smile, Mr. Mueller emerged from a six-hour dinner with his Cuban host. He's an "historic figure," said Mr. Mueller. And Mr. Castro has "a great sense of humor," he added, after the two had talked at length about everything from boosting Europe's relations with Havana to French poetry. The economics minister headed a delegation of about 100 German businessmen, parliamentarians, government officials and journalists. Why would Berlin cozy up to such a strategically insignificant little dictatorship?

Of course, with the end of the Cold War, communist Cuba lost its significance as a Soviet proxy and exporter of the revolution in the Third World. But Mr. Castro's vicious regime remains a curse upon the Cuban people. Short-term political detentions are up on the island; more than 200 dissidents have been jailed in the last year, and one Vladimiro Roca, of the Democratic Socialist Current has spent more than a year in solitary confinement. Recent reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Pax Cristi Netherlands find that the human rights situation on the island has never been worse. Mr. Mueller said he did not bring up human rights during his visit.

So what explains this German wanderlust to the Carribean? Of course, there's businesss. But the stakes are truly small. Cuba accounts for a scant 0.01 percent of German exports. Is it a version of German Ostpolitik a recycling of Willy Brandt's old idea of "change through rapprochement"? It's true, Americans sanctions have not dislodged Mr. Castro from power. He has ruled the island for more than four decades. Still, one can't help contrasting Germany's approach to Mr. Castro with another country closer at hand, Mexico. There, 60 outstanding intellectuals, artists, writers and teachers (most of them associated with the left) signed a petition last year calling for the release of political prisoners on the island. Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, even made a strong (and unprecedented) pitch for democracy on Cuban television during an Ibero-American Summit in Havana.

Has the current German government noticed that the policy of rapprochement, tried already by Canada and Spain, for example, has been a resounding flop? Or is there something even ideological about the approach (what Germans and other Europeans are fond of accusing the United States of)?Last year, when Vaclav Havel's Czech Republic introduced a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Commission condemning abuses by the Castro regime, Germany and its EU partners worked furiously to soften it.

Of course, it's possible that Mr. Schroeder's enduring ties to the political culture of May 1968 help explain Berlin's current Cuban interests. Of course, the German chancellor is no leftist. He has modulated to the pragmatic, pro-business center on most things, to be sure. But prior to campaigning for chancellor, Mr. Schroeder had never once visited the United States. Strange for a German leader. He had been to Cuba, though. He first invited Comrade Castro to Germany when he visited the island four years ago as governor of the West German state of Lower Saxony. Last year, Mr. Schroeder sent his development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul ("Heide the Red," as she's widely known) to Havana the first senior German official to travel to the island in 40 years to revive German-Cuban relations. The Wieczorek-Zeul mission concluded with a rescheduling of $115 million worth of Cuban debt, promises of new aid, and a pledge to eliminate "ideological blinders" in Germany's policy towards Cuba a largeness of view nowhere in evidence (and quite properly so) in the recent case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Perhaps there's more. Berlin's Cuba policy looks like a way to poke the United States. After the Wieczorek-Zeul trip, the chancellor presented Bill Clinton with a box of Cuban cigars, when the two leaders dined in a trendy Berlin restaurant. The German media seemed to delight over the American president's awkward moment (for more reasons than one), as Mr. Schroeder told Mr. Clinton, "I'm holding one of Fidel's cigars … that I would like to give you." Indeed, on a number of matters one might ask, as Henry Kissinger has written recently, whether the EU is becoming overly preoccupied with ambitions to undercut American power and inlfuence. Americans should note the role our European partners played recently in having the United States voted off the U.N. Human Rights Commission; EU antics in Korea and the European penchant for coziness with Saddam Hussein. Germany's moves on Cuba, gloats the French government press agency, "will come as a blow to the United States." No doubt. But Americans are justified in asking why the bill for such efforts has to be paid by the long-suffering Cuban people.

Jeffrey Gedmin and Mark Falcoff are resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute.

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