EU envoy seeks new ties with Raul Castro\'s Cuba

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EU envoy seeks new ties with Raul Castro's Cuba

HAVANA, March 6 (Reuters) - The European Union's top development aid official arrived in Cuba on Thursday to sound out the plans of its new President Raul Castro and relaunch ties that were largely frozen under his brother Fidel Castro.

EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel is expected to meet over the next day or two with Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother on Feb. 24 as communist Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century.

"This first transfer of power constitutes a new situation. Michel has expressed his willingness to engage in a constructive political dialogue with Raul Castro," John Clancy, a spokesman for the EU official, told Reuters in Brussels.

"Michel is keen to listen and to learn about President Raul Castro's possible intentions to undertake some restructuring of the state administration and a number of economic reforms."

Brussels froze relations with Havana in 2003 after Cuba jailed 75 dissidents in a political crackdown and executed three men who hijacked a ferry to flee to the United States. Fidel Castro then told the EU that Cuba did not need its aid.

EU diplomatic sanctions were suspended in 2005 but the EU remains divided on relations with Cuba, with former colonial power Spain leading advocates of engagement while the Czech Republic has spearheaded anti-communist opposition to closer ties on human rights grounds.

With 59 of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 still behind bars, some European governments would like to see Cuba release more political prisoners before sitting down for talks.

Javier Nino, the European Commission's charge d'affaires in Havana, said the time had come to try to restore normal ties between Brussels and Havana through dialogue.

"More than tangible results, we would like this visit to be a step toward normalizing relations," Nino told Reuters.

The U.S. government, which is calling for a transition to multi-party democracy in Cuba instead of succession from one Castro to another, opposed Michel's trip, EU diplomats said.

"The United States has been actively pressing EU member states in their capitals on this visit, saying it was not at a good time," said a European diplomat in Havana.

In Washington, the State Department said it did not favor discussions with Havana until there were signs of change.

"Certainly, we aren't promoting engagement ... with Cuba at this point in time, specifically because we believe it's important that this new regime show that it's going to be different than the government of Fidel Castro," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

Casey said he hoped Michel would press the Cuban government on the release of political prisoners and the holding of "free and fair elections."

"We are confident that, whether it's Commissioner Michel or others, that they will be putting forward the clear idea that Cuba needs to change its policies," Casey said. (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Brussels and Esteban Israel in Havana; editing by Todd Eastham and John O'Callaghan)

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