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EU seeking to upgrade bloc's ties with Cuba

Thursday - 2/6/2014, 2:20pm  ET

JUERGEN BAETZ
Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Europe is set to upgrade its ties with Cuba in a bid to broaden economic cooperation and demand more progress on respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, a senior European Union official said Thursday.

The 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers will endorse a mandate to negotiate a new, broad political agreement with Cuba at their upcoming meeting Monday, the official said.

The agreement won't include facilitating trade relations or more development aid for Cuba, but it will mark a crucial step in that direction by broadening and regularizing the two sides' political exchanges, he said.

The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of the decision's announcement, declined to detail what progress on human rights the EU will specifically demand from Cuba, saying it would be counterproductive to cite specific benchmarks at this point.

He insisted, however, that any progress on reaching the new political framework will hinge on "developments on the island since the idea is to accompany the process of reforms, modernization and further strengthening of fundamental freedoms and human rights."

Should Cuba's progress stall, he suggested, then "the motivation to engage frequently will be much less. Other priorities will get the upper hand."

In Havana, Cuban officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the forthcoming EU mandate.

The EU resumed low-level contacts with Cuba in 2008, two years after Raul Castro became president and started granting Cubans some more freedom, including lifting some travel restrictions, while also slowly opening up the state-dominated economy to private businesses.

Washington's relations with Cuba are defined by the 52-year-old trade embargo, but European nations have long traded with Cuba, and thousands of sun-seeking Europeans flock to the islands' Caribbean beaches every year.

The EU official said the bloc's move comes in "full understanding with Washington," noting that the U.S. position on Cuba also is experiencing some relaxation. The U.S. and the EU are both hoping Cuba will implement further reforms, "therefore this is not an issue where out paths diverge," he added.

Cuba has received about 80 million ($110 million) in development aid from the EU since 2008. While that sum is small, experts say the EU would certainly be ready to provide more assistance, if the country took further steps toward democratization and respect for fundamental freedoms.

The EU already is the Caribbean island nation's second most important trading partner, trailing only Cuba's socialist ally Venezuela, and one of the biggest sources of foreign direct investment. About one-fifth of Cuba's imports currently come from Europe, according to EU figures.

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Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz

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AP writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed reporting.


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