The EU’s foreign policy chief is to visit Cuba this month in the latest sign of the rapid thaw in relations between Havana and the west.
The trip by Federica Mogherini, scheduled for March 23, comes after last year’s push to overcome half a century of antagonism between Cuba and the US and end a tight sanctions regime imposed against the communist-run island nation in the 1960s.
Since 1996, the EU has followed a policy of only easing restrictions on economic relations with Cuba when it introduces reforms, including broadening political participation and allowing more freedom of speech.
While the EU’s approach to Cuba has never been as hostile as that of the US, relations were marred by a dispute over human rights violations in 2003, leading to a long freeze on economic co-operation.
EU companies remain the biggest investors in Cuba and the EU is its second-biggest trade partner after Venezuela.
In a statement on Saturday, Ms Mogherini said Cuba was facing “a very interesting” period. “The EU is keen to see how we can take the relationship forward with strong momentum,” she said. “The EU has been closely following the developments in Cuba and its relations with key international players, which create new dynamics in the region and in Cuba itself and provide new opportunities.”
The trip is the highest-level visit by an EU official for years. François Hollande, the French president, is due to visit the country in May.
Ms Mogherini is due to meet Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, to discuss ways of revitalising the country’s relationship with the EU, from trade and investment to promoting democratic reform. She is also scheduled to visit Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, and other figures from civil society. It is unclear whether she will meet Cuban dissidents, an issue that caused friction when senior US diplomats visited Havana in January.
Roberta Jacobson, US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, is back in Havana on Sunday for a third round of talks with Cuban authorities, which are expected to focus on reopening embassies and removing Cuba from Washington’s list of terrorist-sponsoring nations.
The EU lifted some of its sanctions against Cuba in 2008, when Fidel Castro retired from the presidency and handed power to Raúl, his younger brother. Last year negotiators began exploring ways to restore full Cuba-EU ties and put aside the decade of estrangement that followed Havana’s arrest of 75 dissidents.
Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana
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