msnbc.com news services
updated 6/19/2008 6:19:38 PM ET 2008-06-19T22:19:38

The European Union's external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Thursday that the EU has agreed to lift sanctions on Cuba.

"Cuban sanctions will be lifted," she told reporters after foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc clinched agreement at a summit dinner in Brussels.

EU leaders feel they have to cooperate with changes in Cuba after Raul Castro took over as the head of the country's government from his ailing brother Fidel, Ferrero-Waldner said.

The measures were imposed five years ago after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 and include a freeze on visits by high-level officials.  The sanctions were suspended in 2005.

Some EU nations — including the Czech Republic and Sweden — have been reluctant to lift the diplomatic sanctions during the two-day summit in Belgium, saying they wanted to see Cuba improve human rights first.

"There will be very clear language also on what the Cubans still have to do ... releasing prisoners, really working on human rights questions," she told reporters at an EU summit. "There will be a sort of review to see whether indeed something will have happened."

No signs of U.S. following
The decision does not affect the United States' trade embargo imposed on Cuba nearly 50 years ago. The Bush administration has shown no signs of lifting it.

The measures were imposed in 2003 after Cuba imprisoned 75 dissidents and independent journalists, accusing them of working with the United States to undermine the government.

Cuban authorities released 16 on medical parole and four others were freed into forced exile in Spain, but 55 remain behind bars.

In January 2005, the EU suspended the sanctions, restoring diplomatic relations and ending its ban on talks with Cuban officials.

But it also asked Havana to release political prisoners and grant freedom of expression and information to its citizens, and said it would continue supporting dissidents and government critics.

EU foreign ministers at the summit approved a set of conditions to be imposed on Cuba in return for sanction-free relations. They include the release of all political prisoners; access for Cubans to the Internet; and a double-track approach for all EU delegations arriving in Cuba allowing them to meet both opposition figures and members of the Cuban government.

Sanctions could be restored
The EU will evaluate Cuba's progress in a year's time and could take restore the sanctions if human rights do not improve, officials said.

In a statement last year, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque's office made it clear Cuba wouldn't formally negotiate improve relations until the EU totally scraps the sanctions.

Spain has lead efforts to improve ties, while countries including Britain, the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden have been more guarded.

The government claims it respects human rights more than most nations by offering a wide social safety net that includes a food ration program and free health care and education. It dismisses outspoken critics and dissidents as U.S. "mercenaries."

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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