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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 18:15 GMT
British visit to Cuba marks thaw
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell
Mr Rammell is expected to call for jailed dissidents to be released

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell is in Cuba on a two-day visit.

Mr Rammell is the first minister from a European nation to go to the communist state since Brussels imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba almost two years ago.

The move came after 75 dissidents were jailed and three hijackers executed.

Following the release of 14 of those dissidents and pressure from Spain's government, the sanctions were temporarily lifted earlier this year.

Aware of its potential controversy, British and Cuban officials released no advance information about this visit.

Neither side wants a repeat of what happened to Mr Rammell last week.

Human rights

He was due to visit Uzbekistan, but the trip was cancelled by the Uzbek government at the last minute, after the British minister announced he intended to raise concerns with his hosts over their human rights record.

Human rights are an equally touchy subject here.

It was following EU criticism of Cuba two years ago, over its imprisonment of dissidents and execution of hijackers, that Fidel Castro described Europe's leaders as "lackeys" of the United States and broke off almost all contact with European ambassadors in Havana.

During his two days in Cuba, Mr Rammell will be attempting to improve relations.

He will be reviewing a UK-funded anti-money laundering course.

He will also be looking to increase sporting links between the two countries.

But British officials insist that the human rights issue will not be ignored. The minister will call on Cuba to release all political prisoners. He is also scheduled to meet some leading dissidents.

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