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EU Split over Development Commissioner's Proposal to Normalize Relations with Cuba


In June, European Union member states are expected to consider whether to normalize relations with Cuba. This follows a call by the EU's Commissioner of Development to permanently lift diplomatic sanctions. In 2003, a Cuban government crack down on dissidents prompted Brussels to freeze relations with Havana. All high level visits were halted and Cuba told the EU it did not need its aid. The EU temporarily suspended its actions 2005, but now Europeans will debate a permanent thaw. Nina-Maria Potts reports for VOA.

The EU's top development official came away from a visit to Cuba last month, saying diplomatic sanctions against Havana should be dropped. Commissioner Louis Michel's meetings with the new Castro government evoked objections from human rights organizations.

But spokesman John Clancy says the European Commission simply wants to explore a new political dialogue and now is the time. "This is important to create the atmosphere for dialogue and that atmosphere for dialogue, over time it's a work in progress," Clancy says. "[It] can also lead to important changes, in the society with whom we are dealing. It can help open up Cuba to the rest of the world, and that's important."

In a 2003 political crackdown, Cuba jailed 75 dissidents; 55 are still in jail, and several European human rights organizations have stated that the EU would send the wrong message by lifting sanctions now.

Commenting on the visit, a U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington is not promoting engagement and wants the release of political prisoners, along with free and fair elections in Cuba.

Within the EU, the Czech Republic leads a group of former communist states that oppose engagement with Cuba. "It is as if the people who are fighting the Cuban regime are their brothers in a political sense, the people who are fighting for the same causes that the Czechs or Polish or the Hungarians were fighting for 20 or 30 years ago," explained Piotr Kaczynski with the Centre for European Policy Studies.

After taking over from his brother in February, Raul Castro has instituted several reforms. They include ending a ban on the use of cellular phones, allowing Cuban citizens to stay in hotels reserved for foreigners, and announcing the launch of a 24 hour television channel which will include foreign-produced content.

Cuba's former colonial ruler, Spain, and a handful of other EU countries are pushing Brussels for engagement with Cuba, but the British Conservative and member of the European Parliament Edward Mcmillan-Scott says Cuba has done nothing to merit any change in relations. "I think that the European Commission is quite wrong to pretend that it's business as usual with Cuba; that somehow the departure of one Castro, and his replacement by another, has made some sort of difference. It hasn't. The regime is still as corrupt," Mcmillan-Scott said.

At a meeting in June, EU member states will review their common position on Cuba. Analysts say a divided EU is unlikely to change the status quo.

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