By Marc Frank | Reuters
Cuba and Spain on Saturday took a big step toward mending relations by signing a broad agreement that re-establishes cooperation halted in 2003 after Havana jailed 75 dissidents.
Spanish International Cooperation Minister Leire Pajin said the deal includes support for small business, the environment, food security and joint efforts in other countries such as Haiti.
Pajin said after the signing ceremony in Havana that it was not yet possible to set an amount of aid for the first year of the agreement in 2008 because some projects were still in the planning stages.
Spain is Cuba’s third-biggest trading partner at around $1 billion per year and a major investor in the island nation.
“We are going to resume cooperation. The challenge is to demonstrate to other European countries that we can work together based on respect and equality,” Cuban Minister of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation Marta Lomas told the media on Friday.
The European Union is split over Cuba. Spain’s new Socialist government favors engagement as its former colony approaches a post-Castro era. But other EU members want to keep up pressure for political change in Cuba.
Cuba rejected EU aid in 2003 after European criticism of Havana for suppressing human rights.
In April Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement to renew cooperation without conditions, discuss human rights issues and improve economic relations through renegotiation of Cuba’s debt.
That agreement set the stage for Saturday’s signing ceremony.
Carlos Alonso Saldivar, Spain’s ambassador to Cuba, said on Saturday his government was pleased with progress to date.
The ambassador said his country was particularly pleased that Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and EU leaders had met at the United Nations this week and planned a future meeting.
Moratinos was the most senior EU government official to visit Havana since the 2003 crackdown on dissent and met with acting President Raul Castro during his visit.
The younger Castro has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel Castro underwent stomach surgery in July 2006, raising uncertainty over the future of the one-party communist state.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Iesrael)