HAVANA – Cuba said Thursday it has agreed to begin negotiations with the European Union on normalizing ties after a decade of differences and sanctions.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said his government “accepts with satisfaction” a proposal made last month by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton to open negotiations.
Rodriguez said the talks would “mean the end of the European Union’s unilateral policies on Cuba.”
The EU officially suspended relations with Cuba, governed by the only one-party communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, in 2003 over the jailing of dozens of Cuban dissidents.
At talks in Brussels last month, EU foreign ministers voted to launch political talks that could eventually open the way to broader trade and economic ties.
Rodriguez said that Havana would “act constructively and believes that the principles set forth are fully justified and should continue to be the reference point for our relationship.”
These principles, according to the minister, are that the talks should be nondiscriminatory, respect national sovereignty and abide by the idea of non-interference in the internal affairs of the nations involved.
Asked about the message the negotiations would send to the United States, the minister said the European Union’s decision “shows unilateral politics don’t work and have no place in modern times.”
The United States, which does not have full bilateral relations with Cuba, has imposed crippling economic sanctions on Havana for more than a half-century.
Rodriguez said diplomats from both sides would work to determine a timetable for the talks, adding the process would “certainly be a long one.”
The EU delegation to Cuba “warmly welcomed the positive decision of the Cuban government to advance the negotiation process and its interest to resume dialogue at a ministerial level.”
“The two sides will begin the process as soon as possible, in a constructive and mutually respectful spirit,” a statement from the EU delegation to Havana said.
While individual EU nations have signed bilateral accords with Cuba, the bloc’s policy as a whole remained based on a 1996 position linking relations to an improvement in human rights.
Havana had considered this interference in its internal affairs.
Rodriguez said Cuba was willing to deal with the EU on “any issue, including the issue of human rights,” adding that Havana had “concerns” on the right countries in some European countries.
In 2003, after authorities in Havana handed down heavy prison sentences to 75 dissidents, the European Union adopted a series of sanctions against Cuba.
But starting in 2005, those sanctions were gradually lifted as the government opponents were released, and the 28-nation bloc resumed preliminary talks with Cuba in 2008.
Since 2008, the EU has channeled some €80 million ($110 million) in development aid to Cuba.
Most of the dissidents sentenced during Cuba’s “Black Spring” in 2003 were eventually freed and authorized to go into exile in Spain, following a dialogue between authorities in Havana, Cuban church leaders and Madrid. The last dissidents were released from prison in 2011.
Since 2008, about 15 EU countries have resumed cooperation projects with Cuba.
While the United States has maintained its trade embargo with Cuba, the EU is the Caribbean island’s second-biggest trading partner after Venezuela and a leading source of foreign investment.
Besides cigars and sugar, Cuba’s beaches attract thousands of vacationers from Europe each year, offering potential investments to EU firms.