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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 09:58 GMT
EU opens first Cuba office

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Havana

EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielsen (L) and Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque at the ceremony
EU-Cuba relations are boosted by improved trade

The European Union has opened its first diplomatic office in Cuba.

The ceremony was attended by the European Commissioner for Economic Development, Poul Nielsen, and the Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque.

Both sides are hoping that the opening of the new office will help strengthen relations.

An elegant villa in the upmarket western district of Havana, now the European Union's headquarters in Cuba, will be occupied by a permanent representative and three local staff.

At a small ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the house, European and Cuban representatives both spoke of a new era in relations.

It has not always been a happy relationship, with the European Union particularly critical of communist-led Cuba's human rights record.

But currently, the two sides do seem to be getting closer, and money may have much to do with it.

Soaring trade

The EU is now Cuba's largest trading partner and almost two million Europeans come to Cuba on holiday every year.

The Cuban Government has just applied to join the Cotonou Agreement, an EU aid package to former colonies.

Cuba says it will offer all necessary assistance to the EU's new ambassador to Cuba.

It comes at a time when the same hospitality is certainly not being offered to American diplomats on the island.

Fidel Castro recently denounced the United States' most senior diplomat here as a bully and made a thinly-veiled threat to close the office which looks after US interests.

As its relations with its northern neighbour sink lower, Cuba will be hoping for better fortunes with Europe.

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