Brussels hopes to encourage new leader Raul Castro to step up reforms (AFP)
The European Union has agreed to lift sanctions against Cuba, in a move is meant to encourage the new government in Havana to continue with reforms.
The June 19 vote, taken by the foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc, is largely symbolic -- but sends a strong signal to both Cuba and the United States.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told journalists in Brussels the decision was meant to "encourage" recent tentative reforms in the communist island nation.
But she made clear that Cuba still has much work to do to improve its human rights record.
"The Cuba sanctions will be lifted, but at the same time, there will be a very clear language also on what the Cubans still have to do -- I mean, of course, releasing [political] prisoners, really to work on human rights questions -- so, there will be a sort of review to see whether, indeed, something will have happened," Ferrero-Waldner said.
The EU is eliminating a relatively light sanctions regime that was imposed in 2003 and suspended just two years later, in 2005.
The sanctions, which included restrictions on high-level contacts between Cuban and EU officials, are far less harsh than the trade and investment embargo imposed by the United States as part of its decades-long sanctions regime.
Ahead of the EU vote, the U.S. State Department warned against easing sanctions on Cuba, saying such a move would grant legitimacy to a dictatorial regime.
It also dismissed as "cosmetic" recent reforms under Raul Castro -- who assumed the Cuban presidency in February, after his ailing brother, Fidel, stepped down after 49 years in power.
Raul Castro has loosened a number of restrictions affecting ordinary life in Cuba. Citizens with the financial means are now free to purchase personal computers and mobile phones, as well as rent cars and stay in hotels that were previously reserved for foreigners.
The 77-year-old leader has eliminated egalitarian wages -- a cornerstone of Cuba's socialist society -- and has sought to improve the earnings of Cuba's farmers. He has also commuted several death sentences and released some political prisoners.
Critics, however, say this only scratches the surface.
One Havana resident told Reuters that Raul is no different than his brother, and that the government remains deeply repressive.
"I don't think Raul has a different position than that of Fidel," he said. "Raul is the historical continuity of the revolution, and I think if they [the EU] think that, they're deluding themselves regarding a possible change regarding Raul."
Others expressed relief that Brussels was pursuing a different path than Washington in its dealings with Cuba.
"Cuba hasn't changed its development at all and the revolution has been the same," one man said. "I do think lifting the sanctions is an intelligent attitude by the European Union and at least it shows that they aren't playing the United States' game. I think it's very coherent with this new time and that's the way the world should go."
Spain led the EU member states favoring the move to scrap sanctions. Opponents included countries like the Czech Republic. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said Cuba's progress on human rights will be reviewed annually, and that the possibility remains the sanctions will be renewed.
compiled from agency reports