Wed Feb 2, 2004

Castro Angered by EU Rights Monitoring

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Fidel Castro scoffed at moves by the European Union to offer improved ties with the communist country based on its human rights record, and said Cuba does not need Europe.

In angry remarks at the end of a rambling four-hour speech on Tuesday night, the Cuban leader indicated he had no intention of changing his policies.

EU foreign ministers on Monday temporarily lifted diplomatic sanctions imposed on Havana in 2003 to protest the jailing of 75 dissidents. The EU vowed to continue pressing Cuba on human rights through dialogue with its communist government. The policy will be reviewed in six months.

"They are treating us as if we are condemned to death and they have pardoned us for a few months, until June, while they observe how I behave," Castro said, visibly irked.

"What are they going to forgive us for?" he asked.

The 78-year-old leader attacked European nations for siding with his longtime enemy the United States in supporting internal dissidence in 2003, which led Cuba to freeze out EU embassies in Havana for 18 months.

"I must say honestly, Cuba does not need the United States, Cuba does not need Europe," Castro said. "How satisfying it is to be able to say that," he added.

Castro's remarks appeared to confirm views of critics of the EU policy switch who doubt efforts to engage Cuba in constructive dialogue rather than sanctions will have any effect.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel condemned the move to "appease" Castro and said the EU was dishonoring the European ideals of freedom, equality and human rights.

The EU lifted the sanctions, which included inviting dissidents to its national day celebrations in Havana, after Cuba released 14 of the 75 political prisoners.

But Cuban dissidents said the about-turn would strengthen Castro's hand and warned that Europe ran the risk of becoming an accomplice to continued repression on the island.

International rights groups called on Brussels to insist on meaningful progress on human rights, including the unconditional release of all the dissidents still behind bars.

The U.S. government was skeptical about the new European approach, saying past efforts to improve the rights situation in Cuba through dialogue have proven futile.

European diplomats in Havana believe the reopening of diplomatic channels was necessary for the EU to be able to influence a post-Castro transition in Cuba.

"It isn't the first time Castro has said that Cuba doesn't need Europe," said one EU diplomat. "That doesn't impede us getting back on a normal diplomatic footing."