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EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini shakes hands with Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Havana, Cuba, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini(reuters_tickers)
By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - The European Union's top diplomat Federica Mogherini met Cuban President Raul Castro on Thursday as she ended a two-day visit to the Communist country aimed at strengthening engagement even as the Trump administration backtracks on a fragile detente.
Cuban state-run television broadcast footage of the meeting and said it covered the favorable state of relations between the EU and Havana and international issues.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Mogherini said that EU member countries combined were now Cuba's most important economic partner and announced a series of agreements.
As the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement unfolded in 2015-2016 the EU dropped all sanctions and negotiated a political dialogue and cooperation agreement, the first between Cuba and the EU.
Mogherini told journalists before meeting Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Thursday morning that the agreement also provided new potential in trade and investment.
"The EU has become Cuba's first trade partner and was already the first in investment and development cooperation ... which means it is possible to increase the level of economic relations and investments," she said before meeting Castro.
Mogherini said a delegation from the European Investment Bank would visit Cuba later this month.
She said cooperation agreements in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, culture and expertise valued at 49 million euros ($59.1 million) would be signed shortly.
In February, Mogherini will preside with Rodriguez in Brussels over the first joint cooperation meeting between the EU and Cuba, she said.
During her visit she repeatedly criticized the U.S. trade embargo and said she regretted "that the current U.S. administration has apparently changed course with Cuba."
Diplomats said the EU appeared to sense an opportunity, with Castro expected to retire in April and market-oriented reforms already underway.
"I believe that Europe has the potential and interest to take an independent agenda in Cuba in economic and political matters for strategic purposes," said a senior Latin American diplomat.
"Cuba does not cost so much and is very symbolic worldwide. At the same time it balances the growing Russian and Chinese influence," the diplomat said.
Richard Feinberg, an economist and expert on Latin America and Cuba at the Brookings Institution, said Cuban commerce is so spread around the world today that no single country accounts for more than 20 percent of its total trade.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Addiitonal reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Richard Chang and Grant McCool)