International Herald Tribune
By Stephen Castle
Published: June 18, 2007
LUXEMBOURG: Europe on Monday agreed to open a new dialogue with Cuba, seeking to forge a fresh relationship with the government in Havana after what it described as "the first, temporary transfer of power in 48 years."
Foreign ministers of the 27 European Union countries invited Cuban officials to meet in Brussels, despite reservations among Europe's former communist countries, led by the Czech Republic, which have taken a tough line on human rights.
In a statement, EU ministers urged the government in Havana to release all political prisoners and noted that the "political, economic and social system in Cuba remains essentially unchanged." But it also said that the transfer of power from President Fidel Castro during his lengthy illness to a collective leadership led by his brother Raúl "constitutes a new situation."
The U.S. International Trade Commission recently made a five-day visit to Cuba to gauge how the authorities might react if Washington's agriculture trade rules and travel restrictions were lifted.
Pressure is growing in the U.S. Congress for a loosening of the embargo, but the Bush administration and the Cuban-American political establishment have resisted such moves.
The EU declaration was hailed as a victory by Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who visited Cuba in April and met Raúl Castro. However, the EU will continue to insist that meetings between the bloc and Cuban officials be matched by similar contacts with the opposition, although such a rule has been difficult to enforce.
Political sanctions will remain frozen, rather than repealed. But the dialogue marks an attempt by the EU to establish itself as a force in the transition it hopes will take place as Fidel Castro relinquishes his grip on power.
Madrid had pressed for the formal lifting of sanctions, and Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra of the Czech Republic, who resisted that idea, described Monday's agreement as a compromise.
Those "who have experience fighting for freedom are not ready to give up certain principles," Vondra said.
Moratinos said: "The Spanish position won through - that means dialogue. The gamble of going to Cuba paid off. All the Europeans are following the same line and the Spanish strategy."
He welcomed the fact that the EU declaration does not mention European sanctions and said he planned new meetings with the government in Havana in September.
In its statement the EU said it would be "ready to resume a comprehensive and open political dialogue with the Cuban authorities on all topics of mutual interest." This should be on a "reciprocal and non-discriminatory basis" and include human rights.
The statement added that "the EU will outline to the Cuban government its views on democracy, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. For sounding out this, a Cuban delegation will be invited to Brussels."
Relations between the EU and Cuba have been sensitive since the so-called "cocktail wars," which broke out in June 2003 when the bloc decided that its embassies should invite opponents of the Cuban regime under measures to increase pressure on the government in Havana. The gesture so incensed Fidel Castro that he described foreign embassies as "superfluous" and ordered his government to shut its doors to European diplomats, shun ambassadors and break off communications.
After Cuba freed 14 of the 75 jailed dissidents, the sanctions were suspended and the EU began its policy of cultivating opposition as well as government figures.
In a statement, the British government welcomed the deal, saying that it reaffirmed "the EU's desire for political and economic reform in Cuba and that human rights remain at the heart of the EU's policy toward Cuba."
It added: "The EU has stated that is ready to resume an open and comprehensive dialogue with the Cuban authorities and has invited a Cuban delegation to Brussels for talks. It has also made clear that it will continue to pursue its dialogue with Cuba's civil society."