By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
(original title: EU commissioner wants Cuba sanctions abolished)
The European Union’s top development aid official left Cuba on Sunday convinced that EU diplomatic sanctions against the communist island should be dropped after Fidel Castro’s retirement, his main aide said.
EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel visited Havana to gauge the political climate following the replacement of the ailing 81-year-old Castro by his brother Raul Castro on Feb 24, Cuba’s first change of leader in almost half a century.
Michel said he will try to persuade the EU’s 27 member states to scrap diplomatic sanctions that were adopted after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 but have not been enforced since 2005, Michel’s top aide and European Commission Director-General for Development Stefano Manservisi said.
The EU measures, which included a freeze on visits by high-level officials, were diplomatic and did not stop trade and investment in Cuba, unlike the embargo the United States has maintained against Havana since 1962. In 2005, the sanctions were suspended contingent on periodic reviews of Cuba’s human rights record.
During his stay, Michel did not meet President Raul Castro but held talks with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Lage, Vice President Carlos Lage and National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon.
Michel found that economic and political changes, including advances in human rights, are in the pipeline, though they may take time and are not being publicly broadcast by the new leadership, Manservisi said.
“Michel is more than ever convinced that a situation of political immobility by the European Union in this context of underground movement would be a big mistake,” Manservisi said.
“He is convinced that the EU must find a way to unlock this situation,” he told foreign reporters in Havana. Manservisi said the sanctions only exist on paper and will not be enforced again due to lack of unanimity in the EU, but they remain a hurdle in engaging Cuba at a crucial moment of its history.
SANCTIONS AN ‘OBSTACLE’
In a joint communique, the European Commission acknowledged Cuba’s position that the diplomatic sanctions adopted in 2003 are “the main obstacle” to establishing political talks with the European Union and “should be definitively eliminated.”
Brussels froze relations with Havana in 2003 after Cuba jailed 75 dissidents in a political crackdown and executed three men who hijacked a ferry to flee to the United States.
The sanctions included a freeze on high-level visits to Cuba and inviting dissidents to national day celebrations, a move that annoyed Fidel Castro, who held protest rallies outside the Spanish and Italian embassies and told the EU that Cuba no longer needed its aid.
The EU remains divided on relations with Cuba. Former colonial power Spain leads advocates of engagement while the Czech Republic and other former communist states of Eastern Europe oppose closer ties on human rights grounds.
With 55 of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 still behind bars, some EU governments would like to see Cuba release more political prisoners before shelving the sanctions entirely. The European Council of foreign ministers will decide in June.
The European Union is Cuba’s largest commercial partner, with $3 billion a year in trade, and its top foreign investor.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)