Wed, Jan 05, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Cuba establishes ties with several European nations


Cuba announced Monday it had re-established formal contacts with European nations including France, Germany and Britain in a quest to normalize relations after a nearly two-year-long freeze.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said the decision was made after an EU commission recommended that member states work to improve relations with Cuba's communist government, in part by ending the practice of inviting dissidents to national holiday celebrations at their embassies in Havana.

"Due to these pronouncements, Cuba has made the decision to re-establish formal contacts with a group of countries from the European Union," Roque told a news conference.

Roque said Cuban authorities would immediately start meeting with ambassadors from eight European countries: France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Portugal and Sweden.

Relations between Cuba and Europe chilled after Cuba cracked down on the island's opposition in March 2003, rounding up and sentencing 75 dissidents to long prison terms.

European nations were also troubled by the firing-squad executions of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to the US.

EU members responded by unanimously agreeing to reduce high-level governmental visits and participation in cultural events in Cuba and to invite dissidents to embassy gatherings.

But some EU nations, led by Spain's new Socialist government, say the EU sanctions have had little effect. In mid-December, an EU commission recommended member states work out a new policy encouraging the Caribbean island to open up.

Martha Beatriz Roque, one of 14 dissidents from the original group of 75 released from prison last year, said she was disappointed.

"We are going to continue working to achieve democracy in Cuba, despite the European Union turning its back on us and supporting the Cuban government," Roque said in a telephone interview.

Monday's announcement came about a month after formal contact was re-established with Spain, Belgium and Hungary. Perez Roque declined to comment on the EU countries with which contact has not been resumed.

By late November, as the EU reviewed diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, the government started releasing some of the 75 dissidents from prison.

Including an earlier release of dissidents for health reasons, 14 of the original 75 have now been freed, leaving another 61 still behind bars.

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