EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini arrives in Cuba today (23 March) in a bid to spur sensitive talks aimed at normalizing ties with the Communist island state.
The visit comes as previously icy relations between Cuba and the West are thawing, following the dramatic rapprochement between Havana and Washington over the last few months.
Mogherini will meet Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez during the two-day visit, which “comes at a crucial time” for negotiations between the two sides, her office said.
“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 in a statement earlier this month announcing the trip.
The meeting between the top diplomats aims at giving a shot in the arm to the talks with the EU that began some 11 months ago.
The EU and Cuba held a third round of talks between chief negotiators at the beginning of March aimed at tackling sensitive human rights issues and finalizing an agreement “on political dialogue and cooperation.”
EU negotiator Christian Leffler revealed that “differences of interpretation” had emerged during the talks, while Havana meanwhile appealed for the EU to respect the “principle of non-interference” in its internal affairs.
Cuban political scientist Eduardo Perera told AFP the negotiations in March reflected “marked differences of view” which made talks on human rights “thorny.”
“A high-level exchange could strengthen dialogue, but I think that will be the only topic to be addressed,” Perera said.
The talks earlier this month were the first meeting between the 28-country EU 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.
“The EU has been closely following the developments in Cuba and its relations with key international players, which create new dynamics in the region and in Cuba itself, and provide new opportunities for all,” Mogherini said.
Besides meeting Rodriguez on Tuesday, Mogherini is due to meet other Cuban government officials as well as the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and civil society representatives.
No meeting with President Raul Castro has been announced.
In 2014, the EU launched its normalization process with the Americas’ only communist nation to encourage the country to pursue reforms allowing for private initiatives without having to change the one-party political system.
The negotiating sessions earlier this month, initially scheduled for January, had been 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 normalization 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 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 liberalization and greater respect for human rights.
The EU began lifting some sanctions unilaterally in 2008, the year Fidel Castro retired from the presidency permanently and power passed to his younger brother Raul.
The European Union adopted what is known as the "common position" in 1996, which conditions its relations with Cuba to progress towards a pluralistic political system and respect for human rights.
Cuba has rejected the policy on the grounds that it interferes in the country's internal affairs.
Last February the European Union agreed to launch negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since Brussels lifted sanctions on the communist-ruled country in 2008.
EU negotiators aim to agree the so-called Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement by the end of 2015 and say Cuba has signalled a willingness to sign.
The move was preceded by a visit to Cuba by the then foreign minister of Netherlands Frans Timmermans, now Commission Vice President.