EU invites Cuba for talks despite contact freeze

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to invite a Cuban delegation to Brussels to explore the scope for a gradual thaw in ties but chose not to end a four-year-old freeze in contacts.

The 27-member bloc imposed the freeze after a crackdown on dissidents on the communist-run island in 2003. It eased restrictions on some lower-level contacts in 2005 and Spain has been leading a push for relations to be fully normalized.

However, the Spanish campaign met resistance from others, notably the ex-communist Czech Republic, which insisting the EU remain tough on its demands that human rights be improved.

“The EU would be ready to resume a comprehensive and open dialogue with the Cuban authorities on all topics of mutual interest,” the statement agreed by the ministers said.

“In the context of this dialogue, the EU will outline to the Cuban government its views on democracy, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. For sounding this out, a Cuban delegation will be invited to Brussels,” it added.

The statement left out a passage from an earlier draft saying the EU was ready to lift the 2003 sanctions -- a move that would have irked the United States, which has tried to isolate the island with a 45-year-old economic embargo.

Diplomats said a number of eastern European countries which joined the bloc in 2004 still had vivid memories of repression under communism and believed that normalizing ties would send the wrong signal to the Cuban leadership.

“We have our principles which are also the principles of the European Union. We have to support those so as not to delude ourselves,” Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra told reporters.

The statement deplored a lack of progress on human rights and urged the release of all political prisoners, adding: “This issue constitutes a key priority in (EU) policy towards Cuba.”

It noted that last July’s temporary handover of power by Fidel Castro to a collective leadership led by his brother Raul Castro “constitutes a new situation” and called on Cuban authorities to make economic and political reforms.