Havana: The European Union`s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, visited Cuba Tuesday to give impetus to negotiations on normalizing relations between Brussels and Havana.
On her arrival late Monday, Mogherini said she had come to "advance" the negotiations on an agreement of political dialogue and cooperation, the official news website Cubadebate said.
The EU-Cuba talks, which have been underway since April 2014, are being held against a backdrop of parallel normalization talks between Washington and Havana.
US President Barack Obama and Cuba`s President Raul Castro captured world headlines December 17 when they agreed to set aside nearly 50 years of enmity and work to restore diplomatic relations.
Mogherini, the highest level EU official to visit Cuba, began her day by meeting the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the communist government`s only local interlocutor with the West.
She also met with Cuban Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca, who is heading an initiative to attract foreign capital to the island under new, more liberal rules approved a year ago.
With $3.6 billion in trade in 2013, the EU is Cuba`s second biggest trade partner after Venezuela, and it is an important player in the Cuban tourism industry.
Mogherini also will meet with the head of the National Assembly, Esteban Lazo, and Economy Minister Marino Murillo, the architect of the reforms that Castro has undertaken to revamp Cuba`s stagnant Soviet-style economy.
She is to meet later in the day with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and a meeting with Castro also was a possibility.
The EU said the visit comes at a "crucial moment" in the negotiations, a third round of which was held earlier this month.
Cuba wants the EU to abandon its "Common Position," which since 1996 has conditioned European cooperation with Havana on democratic advances, particularly in the area of civil and political rights.
For its part, Brussels wants a more fluid dialogue with Havana and is asking Cuba to sign various international agreements on human rights.
Eduardo Perera, an analyst at the University of Havana, said Mogherini`s visit was of "great importance."
"I don`t think that it is defining in and of itself, but undoubtedly it reflects the importance that is being given to (the negotiations.) It supports and strengthens them," he said.
The trip comes as Francois Hollande plans to become the first French president to visit Cuba in May, and three weeks after a visit by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
Both sides say the negotiations still have a long way to go.
"I would like the process to end as soon as possible, and preferably before the end of 2016, when I conclude my mission in the island," Herman Portocarero, the EU ambassador, said in a recent interview.