- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

HAVANA (AP) - Cuba’s new foreign minister said Wednesday that a sweeping government house-cleaning will not change the island’s foreign policy.

Many have speculated that Cuba’s government could see some reforms after the surprise March 2 leadership shake-up, in which several government ministers were ousted _ including then-Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, a vice president and Cabinet secretary whose broad powers made him de facto economics czar.

Bruno Rodriguez, Perez Roque’s replacement, acknowledged such speculation. But “in Cuban foreign policy,” he said, “polices will continue to adhere to the revolution with the absolute consistency they have from 1959 until this moment.”

The date refers to the rebel uprising that brought Fidel Castro to power 50 years ago. Suffering from an undisclosed ailment, the 82-year-old Castro stepped aside in favor of his younger brother Raul in February 2008.

Rodriguez said both Lage and Perez Roque, who resigned all their remaining posts a day after being demoted, are still members of Cuba’s Communist Party. But he refused to comment further.

Rodriguez spoke at a news conference with Louis Michel, the European Union’s commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, who was on the island for talks on increasing EU-Cuba cooperation.

Michel said the EU is excited about continued discussions with Cuba, especially in the potentially thorny arena of human rights. But there was an awkward moment when the European diplomat said he was pleased that Cuban officials were open to talking about the treatment of prisoners.

Rodriguez immediately rejected that idea, saying the way Cuba runs its prisons is not subject to negotiation.

“We have not established nor expressed any position about the penitentiary system because we believe that belongs under the internal jurisdiction of the state,” he said.

The EU imposed diplomatic sanctions in 2003, when Cuban authorities sentenced 75 opposition leaders to lengthy prison terms for allegedly plotting with Washington to undermine the island’s government. Last summer, the EU voted to eliminate the last remaining sanctions.

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the arrests, which took place as international media attention was focused on the nascent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Twenty of the original 75 prisoners have been released into forced exile or granted provisional parole for health reasons. Another was released in January after completing a six-year sentence.

“We call upon the Cuban government to immediately release these and other political prisoners being held in Cuban jails and to undertake measures to improve human rights conditions,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington.

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