BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, is to visit Cuba this month in the latest sign of warming relations between the Communist-ruled island and the West.
Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister, will visit Havana on March 23 to 24 to discuss developments in the country and prospects for EU-Cuba cooperation, the EU said in a statement on Saturday.
She will be the most senior EU official to visit Cuba in recent years, and the trip comes as both the 28-nation EU and the United States have made diplomatic overtures to the island.
“Cuba is facing a very interesting period and the European Union is keen to see how we can take the relationship forward with strong momentum,” Mogherini said in a statement.
“The EU has been closely following the developments in Cuba and its relations with key international players, which create new dynamics in the region and in Cuba itself, and provide new opportunities for all,” she said.
Mogherini will meet Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other government officials as well as the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and representatives of non-government groups.
The EU agreed in February last year to launch negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and talks on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since Brussels lifted sanctions on the country in 2008.
Mogherini’s visit comes at a “crucial time” for these negotiations, the EU statement said.
The EU’s rapprochement with Cuba was overshadowed when the United States and Cuba announced last December they had agreed to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago, and U.S. President Barack Obama called for an end to the long economic embargo against its old Cold War enemy.
The EU is already Cuba’s top foreign investor, and EU officials say a proposed cooperation agreement with Cuba would give Brussels a bigger role in Havana’s market-oriented reforms.
That could position European companies well for any transition to a more open economy and allow the bloc to press for political freedoms in Cuba.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alison Williams