High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L) and Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez attend a press conference in Havana on March 11, 2016High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L) and Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez attend a press conference in Havana on March 11, 2016 (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)
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Havana (AFP) - The European Union and Cuba signed a deal to normalize relations, including an agreement on the delicate issue of human rights -- a breakthrough just ahead of US President Barack Obama's historic visit to the island.
The agreement, the culmination of nearly two years of negotiations, is a further step toward ending the communist country's status as a pariah in the West.
It comes just as Obama prepares to put a capstone on the rapprochement he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014, setting aside more than half a century of animosity rooted in the Cold War.
"This is a historic step in our relationship," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at a signing ceremony in Havana.
"The agreement marks the beginning of a new era in our bilateral relations," she added, before heading to a meeting with Castro.
Cuba was previously the only country in Latin America without an international cooperation deal with the 28-member bloc.
The EU slapped sanctions on Cuba and suspended cooperation in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists, and had since 1996 officially used its foreign policy to encourage human rights advances in the country.
That so-called "common position" was vehemently rejected by Cuba as interference in its domestic affairs.
"This accord marks the end of the common position," Mogherini said.
The European Parliament must still ratify the deal for it to take effect.
The text of the so-called "political dialogue" agreement has not been published.
The two sides said in a statement that it set the stage for relations based on "respect, reciprocity and shared interests."
The EU had said it was seeking a more constructive approach to engage Havana and persuade Castro's government to sign a series of international human rights treaties.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the deal was the result of "a dynamic process that was not without complexity."
- 'Credibility' for Cuba -
The agreement is a win-win deal, according to political analyst Joaquin Roy of the University of Miami.
"Cuba gains in credibility and the EU casts off a weight because it never really gained anything with the 'common position,'" he told AFP.
The EU and Cuba began talks on restoring ties in April 2014, and had already reached a deal on trade.
They moved to accelerate the process after Cuba and the United States announced their historic rapprochement and then renewed diplomatic relations in July.
Some EU countries had warned against losing out to the United States.
Spain, which counts Cuba as a key trade partner, urged fellow members to "give EU businesses the chance to compete with American companies" on the island.
Many EU members continued to maintain bilateral relations with Havana despite the rupture in ties with the bloc. Their trade with Cuba has made the EU the island's second-largest trade partner after Venezuela, with 2.6 billion euros in trade in 2013.
The United States, despite reopening its embassy in Havana, has yet to lift its trade and financial embargo on Cuba.
Obama has repeatedly urged Congress to end the more than 50-year-old policy, but his Republican opponents, who control both chambers of Congress, accuse him of betraying the cause of human rights in Cuba by engaging with the Castro regime.
Obama will visit Cuba from March 20 to 22 -- the first visit by a US president since 1928, and a symbolically charged coda on his decision to restore ties.
EU negotiator Christian Leffler said the bloc had not rushed to finish the deal before Obama's trip.
"We're very happy we could do it now," he told AFP, saying the fact the deal came just before Obama's visit was a "coincidence."