The foreign ministers of the 27-nation EU bloc have agreed to scrap sanctions against Cuba. The Caribbean country's northern neighbor is bound to be angered by the move.
The move is expected to place Brussels and Washington on a collision course and drew criticism from Cuban dissidents.
The vote on Thursday, June 19, scrapped the sanctions that were imposed in 2003, suspended in 2005 and are largely symbolic. They include limits on high-level government visits and the role of EU diplomats in Cuba's cultural events and do not approach the hard line of the 46-year-old US sanctions, which include a trade and investment embargo.
Earlier Thursday, a US State Department spokesman said Washington opposed any moves to ease sanctions on Cuba, saying that reforms so far under new Cuban President Raul Castro are "some very minor, cosmetic changes" that have fallen well short of ending decades of repressive policies under his brother, Fidel Castro.
The end of sanctions would give legitimacy to a dictatorial regime, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said, and countries should not signal that the "continued oppression of the Cuban people is any more acceptable now than in the past."
Dissidents in Cuba also objected to the lifting of the sanctions, charging the European Union with being "hypocritical."
"It gives me pain, and I'm ashamed of governments that, far from promoting the democratic values under which they live, are made accomplices to one of the last dictatorships in the world," Vladimiro Roca, one of Cuba's best known dissidents and leader of the illegal Social Democratic Party, told DPA news agency.
Although EU diplomats said the lifting of the sanctions was aimed at encouraging democratic reforms on Cuba, the economist Oscar Espinosa, one of 75 dissidents whose 2003 arrests led to the EU sanctions, warned the move could harden the attitude of Cuba's Communist government.
"It is worrisome because the lifting of the sanctions without something in return from Cuba could have a very negative effect on Cuba's internal affairs," Espinosa said. "It could send a signal to the hardline sectors of the government that it pays to be intransigent and inflexible."
As the European Union ceased high-level contacts with Cuba's government in 2003, it also increased its contacts with Cuba's dissidents.
But the sanctions were suspended in 2005, and Spain pushed to have them officially lifted after Fidel Castro withdrew as Cuba's leader and Raul Castro, who took over as president in February, implemented reforms, including giving unused state land to farmers and allowing ordinary Cubans to use mobile phones, stay in tourist hotels and buy energy-consuming goods like DVD players and personal computers.
While the EU saw signs of liberalization in those moves, Cuba's dissidents said they have seen no change in the government's treatment of the opposition. For instance, of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003, 55 remain in custody.
The lifting of the sanctions "confirms once more that, with some notable exceptions, the EU is following a hypocritical policy exclusively concerned with its economic interests and not about Cuba entering the circle of the democratic nations of the world," said Roca, who is a recipient of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The Czech Republic and Sweden have been reluctant to lift the sanctions and have demanded that Cuba make progress in freeing political prisoners and implement other human rights concessions.
As a result, the EU's decision is subject to a review in a year, diplomats said.