By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA TIMES, Oct 24 (IPS).- Cuba and the European Union have agreed to reestablish development cooperation, interrupted five years ago, in another step towards overcoming differences, following the resumption of political dialogue in Paris last week.
There will be no conditions set for the cooperation, which will be carried out with “full respect for national and (European Union) legislation,” according to the joint declaration signed Thursday by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, on his visit to Havana.
For the government of Cuban President Rail Castro, these are essential requisites for any aid project.
Cooperation with Cuba by the European Commission, the EU executive, was broken off in 2003 after the bloc imposed diplomatic sanctions on Havana for a mass arrest of dissidents on the Caribbean island, about 50 of whom are still in prison.
After signing the document, Michel announced immediate emergency humanitarian aid of two million euros (2.6 million dollars), and a further 20 to 25 million euros for 2009 to contribute to the reconstruction of homes and public buildings damaged and destroyed by hurricanes Gustav and Ike in August and September.
He also said there was a “mutual willingness” to make progress through “constructive” dialogue, based on mutual respect, although he said “no topic should be taboo” in the talks.
In his view, there are more factors uniting Cuba and the EU than dividing them, and he predicted that “this new alliance” would have positive results for both parties.
A high level delegation of experts, led by the European Commission’s head of development, will travel to Havana in two weeks’ time to identify, with Cuban authorities, the areas and possible forms of cooperation, Michel announced.
The joint declaration says that cooperation will take place with the goal of promoting development and collaboration in areas mutually agreed by the parties to be advantageous, useful and feasible.
Among possible areas are the environment, science and technology, trade, cultural exchanges and disaster preparedness.
The agreement “opens a new phase that moves beyond past conflicts,” said the Cuban Foreign Minister, who added that now “we must work on reestablishing a mutually acceptable framework, which in Cuba’s view should replace the Common Position of 1996.”
This was the only reference to the EU’s Common Position on Cuba, which seeks “to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” of the Cuban people, and at one point prevented the signing of a framework agreement on cooperation between the EU and Havana.
However, the Common Position, still in force, did not prevent the initiation of political dialogue last week at a meeting attended by Perez Roque, Michel, and Foreign Ministers Bernard Kouchner of France and Karel Schwarzenberg of the Czech Republic.
But the Cuban government only agreed to sit down for talks after the 27-nation European bloc had lifted its diplomatic sanctions imposed in 2003. One of the measures adopted at that time was the invitation extended to large numbers of dissidents to European embassies to celebrate their national holidays.
Of all the diplomatic sanctions, this one caused the greatest irritation among the island’s authorities, who do not recognize any political legitimacy for dissidents and consider them all, without distinction, to be “paid pawns” of the hostile U.S. policy towards Cuba.
The EU sanctions, temporarily suspended in 2005 and definitively lifted in June this year, also included restrictions on official visits and on European participation in cultural events in Cuba.
In a communiqué issued after the meeting in Paris, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said its delegation had insisted that, in order to create a new bilateral framework “as equals,” the EU Common Position on Cuba must also be revoked.
At the start of his talks with Michel, the Cuban foreign minister said that, although there was still much to be done and matters to be rectified, an advance in relations had occurred, as demonstrated by the reinstatement of dialogue in a respectful and constructive environment.
The European commissioner’s stay in Cuba included a visit to Pinar del Río, a province that was particularly hard hit by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
A preliminary estimate by the government put the damages caused by the two hurricanes at five billion dollars, although independent sources have put the amount at 10 billion dollars, and have so far not been contradicted by the authorities.