June 19, 2008 / 10:19 PM / 11 years ago

Defying U.S., EU scraps Cuba sanctions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states agreed on Thursday to scrap sanctions against Cuba but will insist the Communist island improves its human rights record, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.

People carry Cuban flags during an event celebrating the 80th birthday of late rebel Ernesto "Che" Guevara at Guevara's Mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba, June 14, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

The decision, taken despite U.S. calls for the world to remain tough on Havana, will be reviewed after one year, EU sources said.

“Cuban sanctions will be lifted,” Ferrero-Waldner told reporters after foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc clinched agreement at a summit dinner in Brussels.

“Of course there is clear language on human rights, on the detention of prisoners and there will have to be a review also,” she said, referring to statement to be issued later.

The EU measures, which triggered a so-called “cocktail war” over invitations of dissidents and government officials to European embassy receptions, were imposed after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 and include a freeze on high-level visits.

The sanctions were suspended in 2005 but their abolition is an attempt to encourage more reforms by President Raul Castro, who took over after the February 24 retirement of his brother Fidel.

There are about 230 political prisoners in Cuba, according to the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights.

Unlike the 1962 U.S. embargo, the EU sanctions do not prevent trade and investment. Lifting the sanctions will put the EU at odds with Washington, which wants to maintain a hard line against Cuba.

“We certainly don’t see any kind of fundamental break with the Castro dictatorship that would give us reason to believe that now would be the time to lift sanctions,” U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on Thursday.

“We would not be supportive of the EU or anyone else easing those restrictions at this time.”

SPAIN LED

Spain had led the push for a softening in policy towards Cuba but met resistance from the bloc’s ex-communist members, led by the Czech Republic.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who has raised concerns about being too lenient on Cuba, said earlier there would be strict conditions.

“We are going to have some fairly tough demands on the Cubans,” he said. Cuba needs to implement key U.N. human rights conventions and release political prisoners, he added.

EU sources said the decision to lift the sanctions and pursue a dialogue with Cuba would be reviewed after a year and there would have to be unanimous agreement to main the dialogue.

“Following that date, the dialogue will continue if the Council decides that this has been effective,” one source quoted the agreed text as saying.

An earlier draft seen by Reuters calls on Cuban authorities to improve human rights, including by releasing unconditionally political prisoners, ratifying U.N. rights conventions and giving humanitarian organizations access to Cuban jails.

Additional reporting by Mark John, Paul Taylor and Washington bureau; editing by Paul Taylor and Andrew Roche

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