European Union tests waters with Cuba talks

UNITED NATIONS Tue Sep 25, 2007 1:45am BST

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The European Union held informal exploratory talks with Cuba on Monday on resuming closer ties after years of tension over human rights issues, an EU diplomat said.

The foreign ministers of EU presidency holder Portugal and Slovenia, next in the EU chair, plus European Development Commissioner Louis Michel met Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

"It was an informal meeting authorized by the (EU) council to test the waters. No document was signed. The important thing was that the meeting happened at all," the diplomat said.

The 27-nation EU reached out to Cuba in June, inviting a Cuban delegation to Brussels to explore a thaw in ties on the condition that it agree to discuss human rights on the island.

Cuba's Foreign Ministry rebuffed the offer, saying talks could only happen when the EU lifts sanctions imposed in 2003.

Relations between Cuba and the EU soured that year after Brussels froze diplomatic contacts with Havana following the arrest of 75 Cuban dissidents in a crackdown. The EU eased restrictions on some lower-level contacts in 2005.

The EU diplomat said the ministers agreed to meet again early next year under Slovenian presidency ahead of a planned EU-Latin America summit.

They tried to identify issues for that meeting, including from the EU side human rights, governance reform and prisoners as well as trade facilitation, economic assistance and initiatives to help protect the Caribbean region from hurricanes and natural disasters, he said.

The EU has been divided on relations with Cuba, with former colonial power Spain leading advocates of engagement while the Czech Republic has spearheaded anti-communist opposition to closer ties on human rights grounds.

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