Cuba and Europe drink toast to end of the 'cocktail wars'

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The Independent Online

Cuba moved to end a bizarre diplomatic rift with the EU yesterday after European ambassadors offered to strike dissidents from a list of those invited to drink rum punches at embassy receptions.

Cuba moved to end a bizarre diplomatic rift with the EU yesterday after European ambassadors offered to strike dissidents from a list of those invited to drink rum punches at embassy receptions.

Havana said it would end a diplomatic freeze placed on eight EU countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy, in a bizarre dispute nicknamed the "cocktail wars".

Cuba's Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, announced that the gesture was possible as a result of an offer by the EU "to renounce invitations to national day celebrations of mercenaries paid and directed by the United States".

But under the plan proposed by the EU, neither dissidents nor government officials will be invited to quaff aperitifs at the round of European embassy receptions - rendering them useless as a tool of diplomacy.

Havana froze contacts with European embassies in 2003 after they extended drinks invitations to dissidents in protest at a government crackdown on its opponents. As a consequence, members of Cuba's opposition were invited to the British embassy in Havana to drink mojitos - a blend of rum, lime and mint - at last year's celebration of the Queen's birthday.

Diplomats say that, despite its comical aspects, the row came to symbolise a significant rift over human rights and that a solution could mean normalising relations. One argued: "Within Cuba the situation of civil society is very difficult. Whereas from the outside this [invitation] might seem a trivial gesture, it became politically loaded."

Though Cuba's move was welcomed in Brussels yesterday, EU officials say that the Cubans will need to reopen ties with all 25 countries if the "cocktail wars" are to come to an end.

The dispute blew up in March 2003 when the Cuban government rounded up 75 dissidents. In June 2003 the EU decided that its embassies should invite opponents of the Cuban regime under measures to increase pressure on the government in Havana. The gesture so incensed Cuba's President, Fidel Castro, that he described foreign embassies as "superfluous" and ordered his government to shut its doors to European diplomats, shun ambassadors and break off communications.

After Cuba freed 14 of the 75 jailed dissidents last year, an EU working group on Latin America recommended that the policy should be dropped in favour of more discreet contacts with the dissidents and a ban on both the government and the opposition from receptions. It also suggested restoring high-level visits by European officials to Cuba, though it promised to continue to press for the release of political detainees and intensify contacts with dissidents.

EU ministers will discuss the situation at a meeting later this month. But they are unlikely to agree to a complete normalisation unless Havana resumes ties with all EU countries.

Spain re-established contacts with Havana last month and the Cubans never took action against the Belgian and Hungarian governments, which cancelled their national day receptions. But a majority of EU countries remain on Cuba's blacklist, including the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

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