February 27, 2015 / 6:31 PM / 5 years ago

EU and Cuba to restart talks after cultural dispute

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Cuba and the European Union will hold a third round of talks in Havana next week aimed at increasing trade, investment and political dialogue after overcoming a dispute that delayed the negotiations, an EU official said on Friday.

The round on Wednesday and Thursday follows normalization talks this week between Cuba and the United States, was due to take place in January.

It was postponed because Havana was upset over a cultural event organized by the EU in Washington in March last year.

The EU is already Cuba’s top foreign investor. EU officials say the proposed accord would give Brussels a bigger role in Havana’s market-oriented reforms, position EU companies for Cuba’s transition to a more open economy and allow the Europe to press for political freedoms on the Communist-ruled island.

EU officials suspect that Havana may not have felt ready for a third round last year because they were due to discuss human rights, which is always a sensitive topic for Cuba, a one-party state that represses dissent and controls the media.

“We will only go when they feel they are ready to receive us,” said an EU official on condition of anonymity.

It was unclear how ready Havana is now willing to discuss human rights this time but the EU official said Cuba is aware that the issue is an essential demand for Europe.

“That has been accepted by our Cuban counterparts. The Cuban side has been aware that these issues will have to be integrated into the agreement,” the official said.

The EU and Cuba began the negotiations in April last year to improve relations, part of a significant deepening of ties since the bloc lifted diplomatic sanctions in 2008.

The talks remain delicate. People involved in preparing the talks told Reuters last year that Cuba was upset by an exhibition of photos of Cuba by a Lithuanian artist that had Havana’s backing.

The exhibition was shown in Washington but Cuba did not approve of some of the people who attended its inauguration there, sources said.

Human rights remain the biggest stumbling block for an EU-Cuba accord. Diplomats say any serious violation of human rights during negotiations would also interrupt the talks.

EU officials say the recent rapprochment in ties with the U.S. government, Cuba’s longtime foe that has kept an embargo against the Caribbean island since 1962, have not had any direct impact on the talks.

“It is too early to say how it will play into our negotiating process,” the EU official said, referring to the decision on Dec. 17 by the United States and Cuba to work to normalize relations severed 54 years ago.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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