The European Union should normalise relations with Havana, development commissioner Louis Michel said as the EU and Cuba held talks in Brussels. But the Czech EU presidency is taking a more cautious approach over human rights.
"I think that if the European Union does not consolidate the normalisation of relations with Cuba, the Americans will do so before us," Mr Michel said.
Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez welcomed the commissioner's words.
"Cuba is ready to normalise relations, to establish a new start in the relationship between the European Union and Cuba," he said, adding that the current EU position on relations with the Communist island was "obsolete."
Mr Rodriquez was in the European capital for discussions with the Czech foreign minister, Jan Kohout, and EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana.
Following the meeting, Mr Kohout noted that problems remained on the question of human rights.
"Our views did converge on the issues of climate change and UN reform. They did not in the area of human rights," he told reporters. "We came back to the issue of political prisoners in Cuba and their health, and the answer we got was that in Cuba there are no political prisoners."
The Czech minister underlined that there had been "a real dialogue, not just two monologues," however.
Mr Rodriguez, for his part, maintained that all those held in Cuban jails were imprisoned for legal infractions rather than due to their political opinions.
"These are legal decisions, and not of a political nature," he said. "The Cuban penal system fully complies with all standards in this domain."
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (L) shakes hands with Louis Michel, European commissioner for the Development and Humanitarian Aid, during a press conference held in Havana, Cuba, March 18, 2009. Cuba and the European Union (EU) will restart in May a political dialogue at foreign ministries level, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez announced on Wednesday. (Xinhua/Yin Yongjian)
According to Amnesty International's latest global report, from 2008, at least 62 prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned in Cuba. Political dissidents, independent journalists and human rights activists continued to be harassed and detained.
The group describes restrictions on freedom of expression, association and movement as "severe." The country also retains the death penalty. At the same time, Amnesty notes that economic and social rights on the island are strong, with a 99.8 percent literacy rate, long life expectancy and infant mortality rates on a par or above European countries.
The group also reports that four prisoners of conscience and other political dissidents were released in 2008 and the government ratified two human rights treaties.
It is this moderate human rights 'thaw' since the transition in rule from longtime leader Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul, that has prompted a cautious shift in perspective in both Brussels and Washington.
In 1996, the EU member states took a common position that called for democratic pluralism and respect for human rights in Cuba. The bloc then imposed sanctions following a crackdown on dissidents in 2003.
Sanctions were suspended in 2005 and lifted after a decision by EU leaders last June. In October, Louis Michel visited the island and signed a declaration pledging to re-establish bilateral co-operation.
The new US administration has also loosened up on Cuba, with President Barack Obama encouraging a re-evaluation of Washington's Cuba policy in April.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the question of normalising relations on 15 June in Luxembourg.
"I don't see much interest in deciding to re-impose sanctions," said commissioner Michel.