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By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba needs to make "gestures" on human rights if it wants the European Union to treat it like most other nations, an EU official said on Wednesday at the end of a three-day trip to Cuba.
Cuba is pushing the EU to abandon its current "common position" that calls for a transition to pluralist democracy and the respect for human rights on the communist-led island as the two enter a new era of cooperation following a five-year rift over Havana's treatment of dissidents.
EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Karel de Gucht told reporters that a new "political format" for EU-Cuba relations would be a "very fortunate evolution," but Cuba will have to give something in order to get it.
"On the part of Cuba, it implies that gestures should be made with respect to fundamental rights," de Gucht said.
"Although opinions on fundamental rights can differ from one country to another, there's also a nucleus of fundamental rights that is undoubtedly universal, and we should further discuss how we make progress in this respect," he said.
Cuba is a one-party state with no free press and tight travel restrictions, but it says it fulfils basic human rights by preventing hunger and providing such things as free medical care and education.
Human rights groups say there are 200 political prisoners in Cuba, but the government says it has none because all those behind bars were found guilty of crimes in a fair legal process.
The EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba after 75 political opponents were jailed in March 2003. Last year, the sanctions were lifted as the 27-nation bloc and Cuba agreed to political dialogue and renewed cooperation.
Cuba released a political prisoner last month after a visit by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said Spain will push to end the common position during its six-month turn in the EU presidency starting in January.
De Gucht, a Belgian, said Cuba wants to replace the common position with a bi-lateral framework that is "very much similar to the format for political relations we have with the vast majority of countries worldwide."
He said he met with Cuban President Raul Castro for more than two hours on Wednesday and "made it clear we can only change the common position into a new format provided that we get a consensus."
While Cuba must improve human rights, the EU must show Cuba that "the purpose of the political action of the European Union is not about regime change," he said.
"There is a lot of room for closer cooperation. I think we should try to deepen this as much as possible and it can only happen in a situation of trust," de Gucht said.
(Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes, writing by Jeff Franks, editing by Anthony Boadle)

Reuters