Rice criticizes Spain over Cuba policy

BERLIN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Spain on Tuesday for its dealings with Cuba and said she would press Spanish officials on the issue in Madrid this week.

After several years of tense relations with Spain, Rice is set to make her first visit as the top U.S. diplomat to Madrid on Friday. She will meet King Juan Carlos, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

“On Cuba, I am not sure that we see eye to eye,” Rice told reporters traveling with her to Germany where she is meeting Group of Eight ministers.

The United States has a policy of isolating Cuba and its ailing President Fidel Castro. Spain, on the other hand, favors constructive engagement and its foreign minister visited Cuba last April.

Rice said a country like Spain that had overcome its own “authoritarian past” -- a reference to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco -- knew of the need for democracy in a nation such as Cuba.

“I don’t see how that course (of democracy) is advanced by simply dealing with the current regime, a regime that seems to be setting itself up for a non-democratic succession when the transition takes place in Cuba and doing that at the expense of contacts with the very nascent and fragile democratic opposition that is beginning to arise in Cuba,” she said.

“The Cubans deserve better and I think we will talk about that,” Rice said.

Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul in July last year after emergency surgery and the United States has been strongly critical of the move, calling for free elections and an end to the Castro era.

U.S.-Spanish ties have been strained since Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2004 following the election of Zapatero who trounced Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close ally of President George W. Bush.

The two countries have cooperated on Afghanistan and other issues. But differences on Iraq persist and Rice’s visit is seen as an attempt to smooth over tensions.

Spain’s ties with Venezuela’s anti-American President Hugo Chavez have also irked the Bush administration which sees Chavez as meddlesome in the region.