By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - The European Union’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini arrived in Cuba on Wednesday to help strengthen member countries' economic and political ties with the Communist-run island.
Mogherini’s visit “reconfirms the strong EU-Cuban relationship,” and she will press for an “ambitious and swift joint implementation of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement,” the EU said in a statement.
As the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement unfolded in 2015-2016 the EU dropped all sanctions and negotiated the agreement, the first accord between Cuba and the 28-nation bloc.
Signed in December 2016 and ratified in November, the EU said at the time that it hoped to position its companies for Cuba’s transition to a more open economy and allow it to press for political freedoms on the island.
Mogherini’s visit contrasts with the Trump administration’s partial rollback of a fragile detente between the old Cold War foes begun by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Her first official meeting on the two-day visit was with Foreign Investment and Cooperation Minister Rodrigo Malmierca.
She was also scheduled to meet with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, and Cuban Foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez on Thursday.
“Cuba's weak economy has been battered by the collapse in Venezuela, making it more vulnerable and open to foreign capital. Europe is seizing the moment,” Economist Andrew Zimbalist, a Cuba expert at Smith College in the United States, said.
Cuba faces a host of challenges, including declining aid from socialist ally Venezuela. Last month it extended the term of its current leadership to April, signaling a two-month delay in the historic handover from Raul Castro to a new president, while announcing tighter regulations on the non-state sector.
The official Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported on Wednesday that the EU is the most important exporter and second trading partner of Cuba, and also the most important donor of cooperation and foreign investment.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Susan Thomas)