Havana, 5 Mar. (AFP) – The European Union and Cuba resumed negotiations Wednesday in a third round of talks aimed at normalizing relations, as Havana and Washington work through their own historic rapprochement.
The two-day session, part of a dialogue that began 11 months ago, is aimed at tackling sensitive human rights issues and finalizing an agreement “on political dialogue and cooperation,” meant to turn the page on a decade of estrangement.
“Our agenda is focused on cooperation, with the ambition to start dealing with the two other major topics (political dialogue and commerce) and set a stage for the next steps,” a European diplomat told AFP.
A Thursday evening press conference scheduled by the EU delegation will take stock of the progress made during the closed-door discussions. The talks mark the first meeting between the European bloc and Havana since the United States and Cuba surprised the world by announcing in December that they would move to restore relations after half a century.
The EU launched its normalization process with the communist island to encourage President Raul Castro to pursue reforms allowing for private initiatives without changing the one-party political system. The talks are being led by European chief negotiator Christian Leffler and Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno.
The pair headed the two previous rounds in Brussels in August and in Havana in April. The session, initially scheduled for January, was postponed by Cuba just before the thaw with Washington was announced.
The EU hailed the move, calling it a historic turning point. However, Spain in January urged the EU to speed up its process of normalization to not lose ground to Washington, particularly on trade. Meanwhile France announced Tuesday that President Francois Hollande will travel to Cuba in May, the first visit by a French chief of state.
An accord with Havana would facilitate European aid to the ailing Cuban economy, and favor the island’s exports to EU nations. Cuban tobacco, one of the country’s main exports, is subject to a 26 percent tariff in the EU, slowing sales.
Bilateral trade has increased, however, and the EU is Cuba’s second biggest trading partner behind Venezuela, with exchanges valued at $3.7 billion in 2012, according to the latest Cuban government figures. While Cuba exports mostly raw materials, it imports mainly manufactured goods from the European Union.