By MARC CHAMPION
BRUSSELS -- The European Union agreed to lift limited sanctions against Cuba, a hotly contested move designed to encourage the country's new government under Raúl Castro to liberalize.
Even though the sanctions were largely symbolic and were suspended in 2005, the move was a victory for Cuba and put the EU at odds with U.S. policy. Spain argued strongly that the time is right for the EU to make such a gesture to encourage recent indications of liberalization under Cuba's new president. Raúl Castro is the brother of Fidel Castro, who is ailing and stepped down in February.
Imposed in 2003 after Cuba jailed dozens of political prisoners, the sanctions limited high-level contacts between Cuba and EU governments. They never barred trade, unlike decades-old U.S. sanctions, which include an embargo on Communist Cuba.
Cuba's progress on human rights will be reviewed annually, with the possibility of renewing the sanctions, according to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a strong critic of the Castro regime. EU delegations will also be "requested" to meet with the political opposition when in Cuba, he said.
The U.S. said it was disappointed. "We think the Castros need to take a number of steps to improve the human-rights conditions for ordinary Cubans before any sanctions are lifted," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.
The Czech Republic had taken an especially strong stance against lifting the sanctions, backed by Sweden and other Nordic states. They argued the new Cuban president has done too little to open up the country to deserve reward. Recent changes include allowing Cubans to buy cellphones and rent rooms in hotels once reserved for foreigners.
Mr. Schwarzenberg, a former dissident against the Communist regime in Prague that collapsed in 1989, acknowledged that the outcome was a compromise, but he said he hoped this could produce a more "active" approach to Cuba. He said the annual EU review of Cuban progress should look at prison conditions, which he said were stuck in the 1950s, and at the number of political prisoners in jail.
Mr. Schwarzenberg was detained while in Havana in 2006 on a visit as a Czech senator, shortly before a planned meeting with opposition politicians. He was taken to the airport and expelled, a spokesman said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Sweden has tried to establish high-level contacts with Cuba since 2005, when the EU sanctions were suspended, but was rebuffed by Havana.
"We're explicit about what we expect: democratic changes, releasing political prisoners, open economy," Mr. Bildt said. Cuba said we've been "too tough in our language," he added.
--Evan Perez in Washington and Peppi Kiviniemi in Brussels contributed to this article.
Write to Marc Champion at email@example.com