By Rikard Jozwiak
EU officials to visit Cuba in October as rapprochement begins.
The European Commission has welcomed Cuba’s conditional acceptance of an EU offer to resume a formal process of political dialogue, calling Havana’s reaction a “positive step”.
The Cuban foreign ministry said that its condition for dialogue is a “joint agreement” on the “foundations and bases” of the process, Reuters reported on 16 September, quoting a letter sent in early September by the Cuban authorities to France, the EU’s current president.
EU leaders made the offer when they met in June. At the same summit, they lifted sanctions imposed on Cuba in 2003 after scores of Cuban dissidents were arrested. As many as 200 opposition figures remain in prison, but the sanctions, which included a bar on senior Cuban officials visiting EU member states, had already been suspended since 2005. EU leaders said at their June summit that high-level EU representatives would visit to Cuba on the proviso that they could also meet human-rights advocates.
Speaking on 17 September, a Commission spokesman said that an EU delegation will visit the island on 25 October.
A number of EU member states, led by Spain, have been particularly keen for closer relations with Cuba, especially since Fidel Castro effectively stepped down as Cuba’s president in July 2006. The offer amounts to an early step towards a normalisation of relations.
Raúl Castro, who officially replaced his elder brother after National Assembly elections in February this year, has embarked on several liberal market reforms in the country but it still remains unclear whether Cuba is edging toward democratisation.
The Czech Republic and Sweden were the two EU countries most fiercely opposed to the lifting of sanctions, but the pair will bear primary responsibility for handling the early stages of dealings with Havana as they will occupy the rotating presidency of the EU in 2009. The Czech deputy foreign minister, Helena Bambasová, said on 12 September that the EU will evaluate its previous lifting of sanctions on Cuba when Prague takes over the six-month presidency in January.
During the discussions in June, Swedish and Czech diplomats said that the issue of political prisoners was a key priority in the political dialogue that the EU now wants to take up with Cuba. Even if no progress is made, new sanctions can, however, only be adopted by unanimous decision of EU member states, which seems unlikely due to the large support that there is among EU states for a dialogue with Cuba.
The EU’s offer increased yet further the differences between its policy towards Cuba and the US’s. As Washington has kept in place an economic, commercial, and financial embargo first imposed in 1962.