Tehran Times
July 17, 2005

France closer to Cuba than rest of EU

HAVANA (AFP) -- France moved beyond EU nations toward normal relations with Cuba, inviting Communist officials to a Bastille Day celebration for the first time in two years, reversing an EU policy of inviting dissidents instead.

"France seeks to open frank and constructive dialogue, which is indispensable to understanding and progress," said French Ambassador Marie-France Pagnier.

"The time has come to take the honest, courageous and sometimes difficult and painful steps to build the foundation for this dialogue," she said.

"Finally, today, Europe's inevitable correction has come," said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

"It is clear that the so-called sanctions adopted by the European Union in 2003 were unjust and ineffective," he said.

France's invitation to Perez Roque, several deputy ministers and other officials, was the first to Cuban officials in the two years since Europe froze such contacts.

France made its decision, a diplomatic source said, after the European Union failed to take a single position on the issue. The attendance of Cuban officials represents a new chapter in Franco-Cuban relations frozen since Cuba's crackdown on dissidents in March 2003 when Havana jailed 75 of them.

And instead of inviting dissidents to its annual July 14 festivities this year, the French Embassy welcomed a dozen dissidents to a working group scheduled for July 13.

The Cuban government had suspended all contact with European diplomats, including attendance at national events of EU member countries, as a protest over invitations to dissidents.

In January, the European Union temporarily suspended the sanctions against Cuba, and in June ratified the move, which reestablishes political dialogue with Havana.

At the same time, it ordered a suspension of its practice of inviting Cuban dissidents to national celebrations, saying that instead a parallel dialogue should be established with the opposition.

"I am sad," said Portugal's ambassador, Mario Rodino de Matos.

"It is a success for France, but I would have preferred that the European Union keep a unified position," he said, as other European diplomats regretted in private France's loner role.

"Spain, France and other countries know that they must reestablish normal, regular diplomatic communication" with Cuba, Spanish Ambassador Carlos Alonzo Zaldinar said. "The European Union is united. There is no split, but different sensibilities," Pagnier said. Roque, who is close to Cuban President Fidel Castro, said, "It has been shown that the strategy of confrontation with Cuba, which was encouraged by (former Spanish prime minister) Jose Maria Aznar, has failed."

France invited several Cuban dissidents to the embassy before the July 14 celebration in order to continue dialogue with the opposition.

Nearly all of the dissidents called the French move an "error," saying that Cuban officials' gestures had not made such "unilateral" moves worthwhile.