- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers agreed yesterday to restore normal diplomatic relations with the Cuban government while pledging to increase contacts with critics of President Fidel Castro.

The decision, announced by Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, ends a freeze on high-level contacts imposed by the 25-nation bloc after Havana cracked down on dissidents in March 2003.

A statement approved by the ministers said the EU was willing to resume “a constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities aiming at tangible results in the political, economic, human rights and cooperation sphere.”

But the EU insisted it would continue to raise human rights issues and demanded the “urgent” and “unconditional” release of all dissidents, including the 75 given prison terms of up to 28 years in the 2003 crackdown.

Mr. Asselborn told reporters the new policy would be reviewed in July.

“We highlighted the need to support a process leading to democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and basic freedoms,” he said.

The EU stressed that any normalization of relations would not curtail its contacts with Cuban dissidents.

“The EU would develop more intense relations with the peaceful political opposition and broader layers of civil society in Cuba, through enhanced and more regular dialogue,” it said.

Cuban authorities said last month they had resumed formal ties with all of the EU’s ambassadors in Havana. They had suspended relations in retaliation for the EU’s ban on high-level governmental visits and participation in cultural events in Cuba and the Europeans’ decision to invite dissidents to embassy gatherings.

In November, the EU reviewed diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, and Havana released 14 of 75 imprisoned dissidents.

Human Rights Watch urged the EU, however, not to fully normalize economic relations with Havana until Mr. Castro’s regime releases more dissidents and introduces legal reforms.

“Cuba’s recent release of some of the dissidents is a welcome step, but it does not signal a meaningful change in the government’s repressive policies,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the New York-based Human Rights watchdog.

The thaw could eventually have economic consequences because the 2003 dispute also saw the EU defer a request by Cuba to join the EU’s trade and aid pact with African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, which could have granted easier access to European markets. Havana withdrew its request after the EU linked it to human rights improvements.

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