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European Union

Cuba gives cautious welcome to European Union offer of improved ties

Cuba has given a cautious welcome to the European Union's proposal to improve ties. EU foreign ministers have endorsed a negotiating mandate for an agreement with the communist-led Caribbean island.

Cuban deputy foreign minister Rogelio Sierra said on Monday that Cuba would "look at the invitation drawn up by (the EU) in a way that is respectful, constructive and in-line with its sovereignty and national interests."

In a statement, Sierra said dialogue with the EU should be "based on a reciprocal, unconditional and on-discriminatory approach."

His remarks come after EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday endorsed a plan to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights. It is the most significant diplomatic shift by the EU since Brussels lifted sanctions on Cuba in 2008.

In 2003, the EU froze relations with Cuba after the communist led government imprisoned 73 government opponents. It resumed low-level contacts in 2008, two years after Raul Castro became president and the prisoners were released.

Sierra said that in 2008 Cuba and the EU started a dialogue "on reciprocal bases ... and total respect for the idea of non-interference in the internal affairs of states."

'Stronger relationship'

On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "I hope Cuba will take up this offer, and that we can work towards a stronger relationship."

Ashton however cautioned that progress would depend on Cuba's willingness to implement further reforms with regard to opening its economy and respecting fundamental rights.

"This is not a policy change from the past," Ashton said. "Just as we want to support reform and modernization in Cuba, we have consistently raised human rights concerns which will remain at the core of the relationship."

EU negotiators are planning for the "Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement" to be signed with Cuba by the end of 2015. Cuba has received about 80 million euros ($109 million) in development aid from the EU since 2008, according to EU data.

The EU is Cuba's biggest foreign investor and second biggest trading partner after Venezuela. One third of tourists visiting the island every year come from the 28-nation EU.

jm/jr (Reuters, AP)