The European Union (EU) has agreed to lift diplomatic sanctions against the Cuban regime and open a dialogue with Havana, a move that is expected to draw criticism from Washington and Cuban dissidents, EFE news agency reported on Friday.
Foreign ministers of the 27 EU member-states agreed late Thursday here to scrap the sanctions that were imposed on the communist country in 2003 but suspended in 2005 and have been in place only as a symbolic move.
The EU stopped high-level contacts with Cuba and increased its contacts with the dissidents following the imprisonment of a group dissidents known as "Group of 75" in 2003 by Fidel Castro's government.
"We have decided unanimously to lift the 2003 measures and initiate a phase of dialogue that is not conditioned or limited by any measures," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in a press conference after the meeting.
Cuba has been calling on the EU to completely abolish the sanctions before Havana could engage in a dialogue with the grouping.
Spain wanted the sanctions on Cuba to be lifted officially after Fidel stepped down in February handing over power to his younger brother Raul.
After assuming power, Raul initiated reforms relaxing restrictions of Cuban citizens, such as giving unused state land to farmers and allowing ordinary Cubans to use mobile phones, stay in tourist hotels and buy energy-consuming goods like DVD players and personal computers.
However, some European countries like the Czech Republic and Sweden have been reluctant to lift the sanctions and have demanded that Cuba make progress in freeing political prisoners and implement other human rights concessions.
Considering the opposition of some member countries, the EU ministers introduced into the text a "renewed commitment" to the EU's "common position" from 1996, which says that the dialogue with the Cuban authorities must always be accompanied by conversations with the opposition.
The EU also asked the Cuban government to restore democracy, respect universal human rights and fundamental liberties, freedom of expression and information.
Earlier Thursday, the US said it was opposing any move by the EU to lift sanctions and ease relations with the communist country as the reforms under taken by Raul Castro's government were too little.
"The end of sanctions (on Cuba) will give legitimacy to a dictatorial regime," US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
DPA adds: Although EU diplomats said the lifting of the sanctions was aimed at encouraging democratic reforms on Cuba, the economist Oscar Espinosa, one of 75 dissidents whose 2003 arrests led to the EU sanctions, warned the move could harden the attitude of Cuba's Communist government.
"It is worrisome because the lifting of the sanctions without something in return from Cuba could have a very negative effect on Cuba's internal affairs," Espinosa said. "It could send a signal to the hardline sectors of the government that it pays to be intransigent and inflexible."
The lifting of the sanctions "confirms once more that, with some notable exceptions, the EU is following a hypocritical policy exclusively concerned with its economic interests and not about Cuba entering the circle of the democratic nations of the world", said
Roca, who is a recipient of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Fifty-five out of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 remain in custody.