European officials start visit in Cuba
From Herald Wire Services
HAVANA -- Belgium's foreign minister and other European Union officials arrived Wednesday for a visit expected to include talks aimed at smoothing out prickly relations between Cuba and the EU.
Foreign Minister Louis Michel of Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency, was scheduled to hold talks with his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Pérez Roque, during the three-day visit.
Michel said Wednesday that the EU and Cuba need to resume political dialogue ``as fast as possible'' in order to relaunch bilateral relations.
'AN OPEN MIND'
``I have come here with humility, with an open mind, and with a strong conviction that the EU and Cuba should take up political dialogue again as fast as possible,'' said Michel on the first day of a three-day visit here.
And he added: ``If there is a desire to relaunch political dialogue, it needs to be done without one side imposing conditions on the other,'' said Michel, who underlined that use of the word ``conditions'' generally served to irritate people.
``I didn't come here to irritate anybody,'' he said.
Other EU officials in the group were Spanish state secretary Miguel Angel Cortés Martín and a representative for the union's External Relations Commissioner Christopher Patten.
European nations last year backed a motion that condemned Havana
at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Cuban officials immediately
canceling a trip to the EU and later said they would not participate in the union's aid-and-trade pact with developing countries.
Earlier this week in Brussels, a spokesman for Michel said that the EU representatives would try to restart a dialogue with Cuba.
Signaling that Havana remains sensitive about the EU, the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a three-paragraph communiqué Wednesday afternoon, characterizing the trip as a visit by the Belgian foreign minister -- not an EU mission.
While Michel was accompanied by representatives of other EU countries or institutions, a ``so-called troika'' of EU officials ``has not been invited to Cuba,'' it said.
Cuba last year withdrew its application to join the EU's pact with the world's poorest countries following the rift over human rights policies.
Joining the group of former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific would give Cuba trade preferences with the EU. Cuba is a former Spanish colony.
Nevertheless, some EU nations said they would withhold any trade perks for the communist country because of its human rights record.
Cuba already does about 40 percent of its trade with EU nations. More than half of the government's joint ventures with foreign companies involve capital from those countries.
In March, the European Commission provided 8 million euros, or $7.4 million, in humanitarian aid for Cuba, aiming to improve living conditions for elderly and disabled people on the island.
The EU gave Cuba 17 million euros, $15.6 million, in aid last year. It provided a total of 78 million euros, $71.8 million, in humanitarian aid in Cuba from 1993 to 2000.