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Cuba agrees to start talks with EU on normalization of relations

Cuba has agreed to start talks on normalizing ties with the EU, after decades of difference. Brussels insists that any thaw in relations - particularly in trade terms - will require Havana to give assurances on rights.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Thursday that Havana had informed the EU of its decision to begin talks, seeking a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, which were

proposed by Brussels in February.

Rodriguez said Cuba would be glad to take part in discussions on topics including human rights, ending what communist Cuba claims is a one-sided relationship with Europe.

"Cuba accepts with satisfaction this proposal… which signifies the end of the unilateral policies of the EU concerning Cuba. On the basis of equality and mutual respect, Cuba is completely willing to discuss any topic, including human rights," Rodriguez said. The minister added that Cuba had human rights concerns of its own about certain EU member states.

Although EU negotiators had said

Cuba had indicated that it was willing to discuss the agreement

, Cuba has waited until now to make its willingness to talk official.

In 1996, with the Cold War over, Brussels had been due to soften its stance to allow more trade between the bloc and the Caribbean island. But - after two small US planes were shot down off the Cuban coast, killing four Cuban exiles - the EU position instead hardened, eventually forming into the "common position." The position placed conditions - concerning human rights and civil liberties - on any enhanced economic cooperation.

'Cocktail wars' exact a price

Relations were frozen entirely in 2003 in a diplomatic dispute dubbed "the cocktail wars," which followed the imprisonment of 75 government opponents. However, links were resumed upon the detainees' release some five years later. A number of bilateral accords between Cuba individual member states have been reached since.

For Cuba and the EU to secure a more united, if symbolic, Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, terms would have to be approved by all of the EU's member states. Poland and the Czech Republic - with Communist pasts of their own - have demanded a firm line be taken against Cuba, particularly where human rights are concerned. Officials in Brussels have repeatedly said that rights would remain central to any future talks.

Brussels began to explore a softening in its stance following reforms launched three years ago by Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba, still the subject of a trade embargo with the US and relatively unimportant as a trading partner to China, is understood to be eager to diversify its economic alliances.

The Caribbean island nation depends heavily on Venezuela - presently wracked by political instability - as its main trade partner and supplier of subsidized oil. Taken as a single entity, the EU already qualifies as Cuba's second-biggest trade partner.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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