Truce declared in `cocktail wars' between EU and Cuba

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The Independent Online
A DISPUTE over the invitation of Cuban dissidents to European embassy receptions in Havana ended yesterday, despite protests over the terms of the truce in the so-called "cocktail wars".

The bizarre diplomatic stand-off over who should drink rum punches with European diplomats concluded with EU ministers restoring full relations with the Cuban government, while pledging increased contacts with critics of President Fidel Castro.

Under the deal neither government ministers nor opposition politicians will be invited to embassy national day receptions, rendering them practically useless as a tool of diplomacy.

However, EU countries that recently abandoned Communism threatened to flout the informal advice on cocktail invitations. Cyril Svoboda, the Czech Foreign Minister, said: "We are on our territory and we can invite whomever we want." Poland's State Secretary, Jan Tuszczynski, added that if dissidents arrive at the Polish national day reception "we will not throw them out".

And both countries say that the shift in policy may be reversed as soon as June, when relations with Cuba are due to be reviewed.

Despite the comical aspects of the row, the cocktail wars became a test of Western resolve in dealing with human rights abuses by the Castro regime.

Czech politicians, including the former president Vaclav Havel, have spoken of the symbolic importance to them of being invited to Western diplomatic receptions during the years of Communist rule.

The row was sparked 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. 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. The gesture so incensed Mr Castro that he described foreign embassies as "superfluous" and ordered his government to shun European diplomats.

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.

That advice was taken up yesterday under a statement which said that meeting with opponents of the regime could be part of the resumed contacts.

Madrid led calls to normalise relations with Cuba. Spain's Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, argued that EU pressure had affected the Castro government and achieved the release of some dissidents. He added that contacts with opponents of the regime would intensify under the deal. "We are going to make them more intensive and regular," said Mr Moratinos. "There is no need to invite them to receptions to do this. Before, people [from the opposition] were invited but there was no regular dialogue."

The communique issued yesterday called urgently on Havana "unconditionally to release all political prisoners of the groups of 75". It also noted that the suspension of measures against the Cuban government would be reviewed before July 2005 "in the light of the evolution towards democratic pluralism and the respect of human rights in Cuba".