Borrell delivers a statement in Havana

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell delivers a statement in Havana, Cuba, May 26, 2023. Yamil Lage/Pool via REUTERS

By Dave Sherwood

HAVANA (Reuters) - The European Union will send a special human rights envoy to Cuba this year to discuss the aftermath of anti-government protests in July 2021, but the EU's top diplomat said it will not "impose" demands on the Communist-run Caribbean nation.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, on a visit to Cuba this week, said EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore would visit the island in late November "to analyze the situation created before, during and after the demonstrations and arrests."

Hundreds of Cubans remain in jail after the protests, the largest since former leader Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Rights groups, the European Union and the United States have all critiqued Cuba's response to such protests as heavy-handed and repressive. Cuba's government said those jailed were guilty of assault, vandalism and sedition.

Borrell said the European Union, Cubaยดs top trade partner, would stop short of making demands on the government despite disagreements over human rights.

The 27-member EU has repeatedly rejected the United Statesยด Cold War-era trade embargo, and Washington putting Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

"The European Union has neither the capacity nor the will to impose changes in Cuba, but we do want to maintain a framework that allows us to talk about everything that unites and divides us without taboos or prohibitions," Borrell said.

Cubaยดs support for Russia in the Ukraine war has become another flashpoint in its relationship with the EU.

Cuba, a long-time political ally of Russia, has called for a peaceful solution but has said the United States, not Russia, is responsible for the war. Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022 in what Moscow described as a necessary decision to protect its security.

Borrell said Cuba, which this year holds the presidency of the G77 group of developing nations, had a special role in defending international law in Ukraine.

"Ukraine is the victim and Russia is the aggressor," Borrell said. "We hope to count on Cuba in its capacity as defender ... of the basic principles of international law."

European businesses, from Spain, Germany and France, among others, are top investors in Cuba, and a major source of tourists and humanitarian aid.

Russia however, has beefed up commercial ties with Cuba since the start of the Ukraine conflict, signing multiple business deals while shipping cargoes of wheat and petroleum products to the cash-strapped island in recent months.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Grant McCool)