Thursday, June 12, 2008

Defying U.S., EU mulls ending Cuban sanctions

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

By Ingrid Melander

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states are studying ending sanctions on Cuba in defiance of U.S. calls but have yet to agree on how this would be done, diplomats said on Tuesday.

Closed-door talks on the move are continuing as EU leaders hosted U.S. President George W. Bush for a farewell summit in Slovenia. EU foreign ministers will decide on the sanctions at a meeting in Luxembourg next Monday, the envoys said.

The measures were imposed after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 and include a freeze on visits by high-level officials. They were formally suspended in 2005 but an abolition would be the EU's way of encouraging Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over after the February 24 retirement of his brother Fidel.

"The time could be right because of changes undertaken by Cuba's new leadership," said one EU diplomat. Changes include new rules allowing Cubans to buy cell phones, rent rooms in hotels once reserved for foreigners, and an increase in public debate.

"Sanctions could possibly be lifted ... but linked with dialogue, with a review. We are working on finding the exact formula," another EU diplomat said of discussions ahead of the June 16 meeting of EU foreign ministers.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said political prisoners in Cuba remained a concern for the EU.

"We think human rights issues are very important ones and there are still a lot of political detainees there," she told reporters on the margins of the EU-U.S. summit in Slovenia.

Lifting sanctions would put the 27-member bloc at odds with Washington over Cuba policy.

Bush told EU leaders at the EU-U.S. summit in the town of Brdo that the communist island needed to free its political prisoners before relations could go forward.

"If the Castro administration really is different, the first way to show their difference to the world is to free the political prisoners," he told a joint news conference with EU officials.

Former colonial power Spain has long led calls for an end to the EU sanctions, which unlike the 1962 U.S. embargo do not prevent trade and investment. But it has met resistance from the bloc's ex-communist members, notably the Czech Republic.

Prague is skeptical of signs of progress in Cuba and wants the EU to take a "dual-track" approach under which high-ranking delegations would be obliged to raise human rights and democracy concerns during any visits, and to meet opposition groups.

"This is our condition for the negotiation (on ending the EU sanctions)," a spokesman for the Czech delegation in Brussels said, adding Prague was concerned that recent changes were largely cosmetic.

Human Rights Watch EU director Lotte Leicht said she did not see any real progress in terms of human rights in Cuba and that scrapping the sanctions might be premature and should be linked to demonstrable progress on human rights.

(Additional reporting by William Schomberg and Zoran Radosavljevic in Slovenia, David Brunnstrom in Brussels)

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