EU-Cuba talks delayed by dispute over cultural event

BRUSSELS/HAVANA – Cuba has delayed negotiations towards an accord with the European Union aimed at opening up the Communist-ruled island, citing a dispute over an EU cultural event in Washington, people close to the matter said on Tuesday.

The third round of talks, due to take place on Jan. 8-9 in Havana, was scheduled to discuss human rights, always a sensitive topic for Cuba, a one-party state that represses dissent and controls the media.

The EU and Cuba initiated the political dialogue on April 29 this year to improve strained relations, part of the most significant deepening of ties since the bloc lifted diplomatic sanctions in 2008.

But people involved in preparing the talks say Cuba is upset with the European Union over a cultural event organized by the bloc in Washington in March. Spain’s recent call for travel rights for dissidents may have also offended Havana.

The cultural event the Cubans have cited as problematic was an exhibition of aerial photographs of Cuba by a Lithuanian artist that had Havana’s backing.

The traveling exhibition, which is now in Brussels, was shown in Washington but Cuba did not approve of some of the people who attended its inauguration there, sources said.

The EU event had nothing to do with the U.S. government, Cuba’s long-time foe that has kept an embargo against the Caribbean island since 1962.

“It seems like a pretext because Cuba feels it is not ready for the next round of talks,” said one person who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“It would see both sides enter more delicate issues like cooperation in the area of human rights, democracy and human rights.”

Cuban officials contacted in Havana had no immediate comment.

The delay puts in doubt a deal by the end of next year, which has been a goal for the European Union since 1996. But the talks can continue as soon as Havana requests more talks, a second person said.

The breakdown also underlines the difficulty Europeans face in edging Cuba towards a peaceful democratic transition and Havana’s wariness about giving Brussels a bigger role in market-orientated reforms to reduce Cuban reliance on Venezuela, Cuba’s top trading partner.

Officials in Spain and Brussels have also speculated that a speech given by Spain’s foreign minister in Havana last month on Spain’s transition to democracy did not go down well.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo may have irritated Raul Castro’s government with his call for Cuba to grant free travel rights to dissidents arrested in the “black spring” of 2003 and later released under strict conditions.

During his visit, Garcia-Margallo was denied a audience with Castro and instead met with First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Human rights remain the biggest stumbling block for an EU-Cuba accord. Diplomats say any serious violation of human rights during negotiations would also interrupt the talks.

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