By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA, March 8 (Reuters) - The European Union’s top development aid official said on Saturday he found a new "open-mindedness" in Cuba, but he and his hosts noted that EU diplomatic sanctions remain a hurdle to improved ties.
EU sanctions adopted after a political crackdown in 2003 were suspended in 2005 pending an improved human rights record in Cuba, but Havana insists they be lifted entirely before it engages in a political dialogue with Brussels.
"The main obstacle for normal relations are of course the sanctions of the EU even if these sanctions are suspended, are not alive for the moment," EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said at a news conference at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.
Michel was scheduled to meet Vice President Carlos Lage on Saturday afternoon. A meeting with President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel on Feb. 24 as Cuba’s first new leader in half a century, has not been confirmed.
The EU official said he will do all he can to convince European governments at a council meeting in June that things are changing in Cuba and the time has come to do away with the sanctions in order to relaunch full diplomatic relations.
"I’ve noticed a lot of changes in Cuba," Michel said. "The spirit, the open-mindedness and the atmosphere of the talks encourage me to believe that there is a improvement in the dialogue process between the EU and Cuba."
Cuba has not ceded an inch in its position that there can be no deepening of ties while the EU sanctions hang over its head. These include a freeze on high-level visits to Cuba and inviting dissidents to national day celebrations, a move that annoyed Fidel Castro’s government in 2003.
OPEN TO TALKS
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Cuba was open to establishing talks on all issues, including human rights and the restarting of aid programs stopped by Castro in 2003.
"To get to that point ... it is obviously necessary to remove one obstacle, which is the EU sanctions that have only been suspended," Perez Roque said.
He said a growing number of the EU’s 27 member states are in favor of restoring normal ties with Cuba, a move that would have to be decided unanimously by the European Council.
Brussels froze relations with Havana in 2003 after Cuba jailed 75 dissidents in a political crackdown and executed three men who hijacked a ferry to flee to the United States. Fidel Castro then told the EU that Cuba did not need its aid.
The EU remains divided on relations with Cuba, with former colonial power Spain leading advocates of engagement while the Czech Republic has spearheaded anti-communist opposition to closer ties on human rights grounds.
With 55 of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 still behind bars, some European governments would like to see Cuba release more political prisoners before sitting down for talks.
European diplomats said some EU member states, including Britain, had sought to set conditions for Michel’s visit to Havana, such as insisting he meet with dissidents. (Editing by John O‘Callaghan)