BRUSSELS, Belgium The European Union on Thursday agreed to lift its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba, but imposed tough conditions on the communist island to maintain sanction-free relations, officials said.
The U.S., which has maintained a decades-long trade embargo against Cuba, criticized the move, saying there were no significant signs the communist island was easing a dictatorship.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the bloc felt it had to encourage changes in Cuba after Raul Castro took over as the head of the country's government from his ailing brother Fidel.
"There will be very clear language also on what the Cubans still have to do ... releasing prisoners, really working on human rights questions," she told reporters at an EU summit. "There will be a sort of review to see whether indeed something will have happened."
The largely symbolic decision takes effect Monday. The diplomatic sanctions, which banned high-level visits to EU nations by Cuban officials, have not been in force since 2005. They were imposed in 2003 following the arrests of dozens of dissidents but suspended two years later.
As part of its action, the EU approved a set of conditions on Cuba in return for sanction-free relations. They include the release of all political prisoners; access for Cubans to the Internet; and a double-track approach for all EU delegations arriving in Cuba, allowing them to meet both opposition figures and members of the Cuban government. Officials said the bloc will evaluate Cuba's progress in a year's time and could take new measures if human rights do not improve.
The U.S. expressed its opposition before the EU's final decision.
State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the United States would "like to see a real transition occur in Cuba, one that would allow for the release of political prisoners, for democratic opening, and ultimately for free and fair elections in which the Cuban people could choose their own leadership."
Casey said the U.S. has recently seen "some very minor cosmetic changes" in Cuba. "We certainly don't see any kind of fundamental break with the Castro dictatorship that would give us reason to believe that now would be the time to lift sanctions or otherwise fundamentally alter our policies," he said.
Asked if lifting EU sanctions would weaken U.S. sanctions, Casey said simply, "We'll see," but offered no assessment.
Peter De Shazo, Americas Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the "decision will not affect the U.S. position toward Cuba" because the policy is largely fixed by legislation with key changes conditioned on a transition to democracy.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said it was well known that certain circles in the United States wanted the EU sanctions to be maintained, but he said "we felt the need to find our own solution."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the lifting of sanctions in no way means the EU was getting weak on Cuba.
"We haven't softened our approach," Bildt said. "It's a repressive regime. ...Now we are very explicit on what we want. We want democratic changes."
He said the EU would push strongly for Cuban authorities to open up their economy, liberate Internet access, and release political prisoners.
The EU sanctions were introduced after Cuba's government rounded up 75 dissidents in 2003. Sixteen of those arrested have been released on medical parole and another four were freed last month into forced exile in Spain. But more than 200 dissidents are still serving jail terms.
Cuba has insisted the EU sanctions be eliminated completely, and said the unilateral action violated its sovereignty.