Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cuba says open to human rights discussion with EU

Wed Mar 18, 2009

By Jeff FranksHAVANA, March 18 (Reuters) - Cuba said on Wednesday it was willing to discuss human rights with the European Union as part of their renewed relationship, but indicated that talk about its prisons may not be any of Europe's business.The EU and Cuba, which reestablished cooperation last year after a five-year rift over Cuban political prisoners, said they would meet in Brussels in May for political dialogue in another step toward normalizing relations.The announcement was made at a joint appearance by new Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, who is visiting the Cuban capital.The two met on the sixth anniversary of a government crackdown in which 75 dissidents and independent journalists were arrested and jailed on sentences ranging from six to 28 years.The crackdown, which came to be known as Cuba's "black spring," caused the 27-nation EU to break off some diplomatic relations with the communist-run island.Michel, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters that Cuba was willing to discuss different issues including "the penitentiary system, an aspect that may be of as much interest to Cuba as to us."Rodriguez, who replaced longtime foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque in a recent cabinet shake-up, quickly corrected Michel.NEW COOPERATION"Cuba is willing to continue the political dialogue with the EU on various topics, among them the field of human rights," he said."But we have not dealt with nor expressed any position about the penitentiary system because we consider that that belongs to the internal jurisdiction of the state," Rodriguez said. "It was possibly a misunderstanding I want to clear up."The EU lifted the sanctions last June with the proviso that it would review Cuba's human rights situation annually. In October the EU and Cuba signed an agreement pledging new cooperation.The United States, which has imposed a trade embargo against Cuba for 47 years but whose new President Barack Obama has spoken of improving U.S.-Cuba relations, marked the "black spring" anniversary by urging the Cuban government on Wednesday to free all political prisoners "and to undertake measures to improve human rights conditions in Cuba."The independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights has said Cuba has about 200 political prisoners. Cuba views dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States.Even though President Raul Castro replaced eight cabinet ministers in his government reshuffle, Rodriguez assured "there is absolutely no change" in Cuban's foreign policy.He shed no light on the reasons for the ouster of his predecessor, Perez Roque, who had been considered one of Cuba's top young leaders.He said there had already been enough information released, including a column by Fidel Castro, in which the former leader wrote without explanation that Perez Roque and cabinet chief Carlos Lage, also ousted, had succumbed to the "honey of power."Rodriguez also sidestepped a question about recent comments from a Russian general that Russia might base strategic bombers in Cuba and Venezuela.He said only that Russia and Cuba had "excellent and growing bilateral relations."( Editing by Sandra Maler)

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