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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK
EU ponders softer stance on Cuba
Wives of jailed Cuban dissidents at a meeting in Havana in September
The wives of many of the jailed dissidents hold regular protests
Officials from the 25 EU member states have been meeting in Brussels to decide whether the bloc should soften its diplomatic stance toward Cuba.

The EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba last year after a crackdown on political dissidents on the island.

But the Spanish government argues increased dialogue with Fidel Castro would be a more effective way to promote an improvement in human rights.

Its call for a softer approach has provoked a political row in Spain.

The dispute was heightened by the expulsion from Cuba on Saturday of a Spanish opposition politician who had flown in to meet dissident leaders.

Dissident row

The senior foreign ministry officials attending Tuesday's meeting agreed to request reports from their respective ambassadors in Cuba on the current situation there, Efe news agency reported.

These reports will form the basis of a consultation when the committee next meets on 16 November to decide what recommendations to make on EU policy toward Cuba.

The EU decided to impose sanctions on the communist island in June last year, after the arrest and imprisonment of 75 dissidents in April, and then the summary execution of three hijackers.

As part of the protest, EU envoys in Havana began inviting prominent Cuban dissidents to embassy parties.

Spanish switch

At the time, Mr Castro blasted EU states for bowing to what he termed the "Nazi-fascist" policy of the US.

A figure who attracted particular vitriol was former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whom Mr Castro labelled "the little Fuhrer with the moustache".

But the Spanish government changed hands in March, and the present Socialist administration now says the EU's sanctions on Cuba have proved "ineffective".

It proposes putting an end to "symbolic" contacts with Cuban dissidents and seeing if relations with the government improve, an EU diplomat told French news agency AFP.

It would require the Castro regime to take steps to improve civil liberties on the island, and would reserve the right to re-impose sanctions at any time.

But several EU states are said to be reluctant to be seen as rewarding Mr Castro without visible signs of improvement in Cuba's human rights record.

'Unacceptable' expulsions

Meanwhile, Cuba has welcomed the Spanish initiative as "sensible", saying sanctions would fail.

Jorge Moragas, Spanish Popular Party (PP) lawmaker, speaks at a press conference on Saturday after his expulsion from Cuba
Spain was outraged by Cuba's ejection of a Spanish politician
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque again defended Cuba's decision to expel two Dutch lawmakers and a senior Spanish opposition politician last weekend.

Cuba says the politicians were mounting a "crude political provocation". They had been attempting to visit dissidents.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, told the Associated Press news agency that the expulsion was "unacceptable, intolerable" and called on Cuba to improve political freedoms.

Cuba says the dissidents are US-backed mercenaries.

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