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09/12/2016

EU foreign affairs chief to visit Cuba to spur trade

Global Europe

EU foreign affairs chief to visit Cuba to spur trade

European chief negotiator Christian Leffler (L) and Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno (R) at the third round of negotiations between the European Union and Cuba in Havana on March 4

Photo by Yamil Lage [AFP]

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is to visit Cuba later this month in a bid to spur talks aimed at normalising ties with the communist island state.

Mogherini will meet Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on the 23-24 March visit to Havana which “comes at a crucial time” for negotiations between the two sides, her office said in a statement Saturday (14 March).

The trip comes just two weeks after European chief negotiator Christian Leffler and Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno held a third round of “frank talks” as part of a dialogue that began 11 months ago. The pair led the two previous rounds, in Brussels in August and in Havana in April.

The talks marked the first meeting between the European bloc and Havana since the United States and Cuba surprised the world by announcing in December that they would move to restore relations after half a century

“Cuba is facing a very interesting period and the European Union is keen to see how we can take the relationship forward with strong momentum,” Mogherini said, adding that developments in Cuba can provide new opportunities for all.

Mogherini has the backing of a number of EU countries to accelerate talks with Cuba.  Spain, which counts Cuba as a key trade partner, urged fellow members to “give EU businesses the chance to compete with American companies” on the island.

 “It’s clear the Europeans see the United States as an ally but also as a competitor in terms of investment and trade with Cuba. It’s about political interests, but it’s clearly about economic interests too,” said Peter Schechter, Latin America director at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.

Speaking at the talks in Havana two weeks ago, Leffler denied the EU was in a race with the United States.

“It’s not a competition between the United States and the European Union. A more active [American] presence […] can contribute to reinforcing the positive atmosphere,” he told journalists.

But in a sign of Europe’s eagerness to keep pace, French President François Hollande announced that he will visit Cuba on 11 May, the first visit ever by a French president and the first by a European or American leader since the US rapprochement.

The EU launched its normalisation process with the Americas’ only communist nation in 2014 in a move to encourage President Raul Castro to pursue reforms which allow for private initiatives without changing the one-party political system.

The negotiating sessions earlier this month, initially scheduled for January, was postponed by Cuba just before the thaw with Washington was announced.

The EU hailed the move, calling it a historic turning point. However, Spain in January urged the EU to speed up its process of normalisation so as to not lose ground to Washington, particularly on trade.

Since 1996, EU policy toward Cuba has been guided by the so-called Common Position, which rules out full relations with Havana until it makes reforms in areas such as more diverse political participation and freedom of expression.

The EU suspended talks with Cuba in 2003 after Havana launched a crackdown and jailed 75 dissidents in a direct response to calls for liberalisation and greater respect for human rights.

It was only in 2008 that the EU started lifting some sanctions unilaterally, the year Fidel Castro retired from the presidency permanently and power passed to his younger brother Raul.

Timeline

  • March 23-24: Mogherini's visit to Havana