Cuba says no talks with EU until sanctions dropped

Campaign News | Saturday, 23 June 2007

By Todd Benson

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters): Cuba's communist government has rejected calls from the European Union for negotiations to improve relations on Friday and said talks can only happen when the EU scraps sanctions imposed on the island in 2003.

Cuba also sent a stern warning to the EU for suggesting that political change on the island might be on the horizon, insisting that Cuba's one-party state is united and firmly in control of the country.

The EU reached out to Cuba on Monday, inviting a Cuban delegation to Brussels to explore a gradual thaw in ties. In justifying its move, the EU said the temporary transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Raul -- the first such transfer since 1959 -- constituted a "new situation."

"If when the (EU) alludes to the delegation of President Fidel Castro's duties to comrade Raul Castro and it qualifies it as a 'new situation,' it expresses the hope that contradictions or differences between the leaders of the Cuban revolution exist, they are wrong again," the Foreign Ministry said in a front-page statement in the Communist Party daily Granma.

Relations between Cuba and the EU soured in 2003 after Brussels imposed a freeze on diplomatic contacts with Havana after the arrest of 75 Cuban dissidents in a crackdown. The EU eased restrictions on some lower-level contacts in 2005 and Spain is leading a push to fully normalize relations.

But the Spanish campaign has met resistance, notably from the ex-communist Czech Republic, which insisted the EU remain tough on demands that Cuba improve its human rights practices.

The 27-member EU invited Cuba to talk on the condition that it agree to discuss human rights. It also urged the Cuban government to release all political prisoners and implement economic and political reforms.

Cuba rejected those calls and criticized the EU for meddling in its internal affairs.

"If the European Union wants some kind of dialogue with Cuba, it should definitively eliminate sanctions," the ministry said. "We do not recognize the moral authority of the European Union to judge or advise Cuba."

Independent rights groups in Cuba estimate that about 280 dissidents are in prison on the island for political reasons. Many governments and international rights groups also criticize Cuba for limiting free speech, Internet access and travel.

The Cuban government dismisses those claims as unfounded and says there are no political prisoners on the island, only "mercenaries" on the payroll of its longtime ideological foe, the United States.

The Foreign Ministry noted that some European nations were pushing to improve EU-Cuban relations. But it singled out the Czech Republic for what it termed as pandering to Washington, which has imposed a trade embargo against Cuba for 45 years.

"It is up to the European Union to make up for the mistakes committed with Cuba," the statement concluded. "But there's no rush: we have all the time in the world."

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