Havana / AFP
The European Union and Cuba signed a deal to normalize relations, including an agreement on the delicate issue of human rightsâ€”a breakthrough just ahead of US President Barack Obamaâ€™s historic visit to the
The agreement, the culmination of nearly two years of negotiations, is a further step toward ending the communist countryâ€™s status as a pariah in the West.
It comes just as Obama prepares to put a capstone on the rapprochement he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014, setting aside more than half a century of animosity rooted in the Cold War.
â€œThis is a historic step in our relationship,â€ said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at a signing ceremony in Havana. â€œThe agreement marks the beginning of a new era in our bilateral relations,â€ she added, before heading to a meeting with Castro.
Cuba was previously the only country in Latin America without an international cooperation deal with the 28-member bloc. The EU slapped sanctions on Cuba and suspended cooperation in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, and had since 1996 officially used its foreign policy to encourage human rights advances in the country.
That so-called â€œcommon positionâ€ was vehemently rejected by Cuba as interference in its domestic affairs.
â€œThis accord marks the end of the common position,â€ Mogherini said. The European Parliament must still ratify the deal for it to take effect.
The text of the so-called â€œpolitical dialogueâ€ agreement has not been published.
The two sides said in a statement that it set the stage for relations based on â€œrespect, reciprocity and shared interests.â€
The EU had said it was seeking a more constructive approach to engage Havana and persuade Castroâ€™s government to sign a series of international human rights treaties.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the deal was the result of â€œa dynamic process that was not without complexity.â€
â€˜Credibilityâ€™ for Cuba
The agreement is a win-win deal, according to political analyst Joaquin Roy of the University of Miami.
â€œCuba gains in credibility and the EU casts off a weight because it never really gained anything with the â€˜common position,â€™â€ he told AFP.
The EU and Cuba began talks on restoring ties in April 2014, and had already reached a deal on trade.
They moved to accelerate the process after Cuba and the United States announced their historic rapprochement and then renewed diplomatic relations in July.
Some EU countries had warned against losing out to the United States.
Spain, which counts Cuba as a key trade partner, urged fellow members to â€œgive EU businesses the chance to compete with American companiesâ€ on the island.
Many EU members continued to maintain bilateral relations with Havana despite the rupture in ties with the bloc. Their trade with Cuba has made the EU the islandâ€™s second-largest trade partner after Venezuela, with 2.6 billion euros in trade in 2013.