European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday 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’s 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 clampdown.
Asselborn told a news conference 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.
Maintaining contact with dissidents
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 earlier this 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.
The freeze began melting in November, as the EU reviewed diplomatic sanctions against Cuba and Havana released 14 of 75 imprisoned dissidents.
In Havana, dissident Martha Beatriz Roque criticized the EU for allowing the Cuban government “to twist its arm.”
“The position adopted by the EU is not at all beneficial to democracy in Cuba,” she said. “But regardless of the fact that the EU has turned its back on us, we will continue working.”
Roque was the lone woman among the 75 dissidents sentenced in the 2003 crackdown. She was released on July 22.
“This decision of the European Union responds to the interests of the European Union, which are economic,” said Vladimiro Roca, another dissident who spent several years in jail in the 1990s.
The thaw could eventually have economic consequences since 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.
Cuba also refused to accept further assistance from the EU’s aid budget, which had allocated $11.3 million to the island in 2002.
The 25-nation EU is Cuba’s biggest trading partner, with two-way commerce totaling $2.09 billion in 2003.
Rights watchdog wants more from Cuba
Human Rights Watch urged the EU not to fully normalize economic relations with Havana until 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.
In Prague, former Czech President Vaclav Havel also urged the EU to keep supporting Cuba’s dissidents even as it restores diplomatic relations with Havana.
The former dissident said in an article published Monday in the daily newspaper Hospodarske Noviny that the newly expanded EU must “defend its freedoms and values, and not abandon them” by aligning itself with dictators.
Havel appealed to the EU’s newest members, most of them former communist states, “not to forget their experience with totalitarian regimes” and to “reflect that experience in their behavior in the organs of the EU.”