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Posted June 10, 2008 by publisher in US Embargo

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By Ingrid Melander | Reuters

European Union states are nearing agreement on ending sanctions on Cuba in defiance of U.S. calls for continued pressure for democratic reform on the communist island, diplomats said on Tuesday.

Closed-door talks on the move are continuing as EU leaders host U.S. President George W. Bush for a farewell summit in Slovenia. EU foreign ministers could endorse the step at a meeting in Luxembourg next Monday, the envoys said.

The measures were imposed after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 and include a freeze on visits by high-level officials. They were formally suspended in 2005 but an outright abolition would be the EU’s way of encouraging Cuba’s new leadership after the Feb. 24 retirement of Fidel Castro.

“The time could be right because of changes undertaken by Cuba’s new leadership,” said one EU diplomat. Signs of an opening include new rules allowing Cubans to buy cell phones, rent rooms in hotels once reserved for foreigners, and an increase in public debate.

“Sanctions could be lifted ... but linked with dialog, with a review. We are working on finding the exact formula,” another EU diplomat said of the ongoing talks ahead of the June 16 meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Former colonial power Spain has long led calls for an end to the EU sanctions, which unlike the 1962 U.S. embargo do not prevent trade and investment. But it has met resistance from the bloc’s ex-communist members, notably the Czech Republic.

Prague is skeptical of signs of progress in Cuba and wants the EU to take a “dual-track” approach under which high-ranking delegations would be obliged to raise human rights and democracy concerns during any visits, and to meet opposition groups.

“This is our condition for the negotiation (on ending the EU sanctions),” a spokesman for the Czech delegation in Brussels said, adding that Prague was concerned changes brought in by Castro’s brother Raul were largely cosmetic.

The lifting of EU sanctions would put the 27-member bloc at odds with Washington over Cuba policy.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierres urged Europe last week to uphold the measures to prevent authorities being able to give the impression human rights were improving on the island.

“The so-called reforms or so-called changes that have taken place in Cuba, we believe are somewhat cynical,” Gutierres told Reuters in an interview in ex-communist Ukraine.

“It is surprising that the world would rather talk about the fact that Cubans can now visit their own hotels and not talk about the fact that there are political prisoners starving in their own jails,” he said.

(Additional reporting by William Schomberg; writing by Mark John; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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