The European Union agreed Monday to suspend diplomatic sanctions against Cuba for at least six months, easing a standoff triggered by the jailing of dissidents in 2003.
The EU has given Cuban leader Castro a break from sanctions
The suspension, to be reviewed before July, was decided after Fidel Castro's regime released a number of dissidents and signaled a re-opening of diplomatic contacts with EU embassies in Havana.
"All measures taken on June 5, 2003 have been temporarily suspended," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, in reference to the date the sanctions were agreed.
The decision will allow the resumption of high-level visits, although such trips must be used to push for improvements in human rights and the rights of dissidents in Cuba.
The EU froze relations with Cuba following a crackdown that saw 75 dissidents jailed for terms of between six and 28 years. Three Cubans found guilty of hijacking a ferry were executed. But the standoff eased noticeably after the release of a number of the dissidents, in a move seen partly as a gesture to win over EU nations most opposed to lifting the sanctions.
In addition, Cuba announced in January it was restoring diplomatic ties with all EU states represented in Havana, including the four most opposed to lifting the sanctions: the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn
But the suspension of the sanctions is not a definitive end to the row. Asselborn (photo) said the suspension will be reviewed under the Luxembourg EU presidency -- which ends on June 30 -- "in the light of developments and progress towards pluralism and respect of human rights in Cuba."
"We highlighted the need to support a process leading to democratic pluralism, respect of human rights and basic freedoms in Cuba," he added in a break from regular EU foreign ministers' talks in Brussels. The EU "wishes to have a constructive dialogue with the Cuban authorities with a view to coming up with tangible results in economic and political matters, and in relation to human rights," he added.
According to draft conclusions from the Brussels talks, the EU also "reiterates its urgent demand that Cuba unconditionally release all political prisoners ... still in detention." A final version of the conclusions was not immediately available.
Human rights at issue
Lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW) insisted that the EU should make normalizing relations with Cuba dependent on Cuba's meaningful progress on human rights. "Cuba's recent release of some of the dissidents is a welcome step, but it does not signal a meaningful change in the government's repressive policies," said HRW Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco in a statement.
"President Fidel Castro is using human beings as pawns in a political game aimed at improving relations with Europe," he added.