BRUSSELS, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- While the United States insists on maintaining its trade embargo on Cuba, despite starting to normalize relations, the European Union took a much larger leap toward normal interaction on Monday.
Cuban and EU leaders signed a deal in Brussels to normalize relations, change interaction between the two on human rights issues and eventually increase already existing business ties between Europe and Cuba.
Key to the deal was ending a 20-year policy, called the "Common Position," which pinned economic and political ties to the country on human rights practices and political freedom, both of which have been dicey at best for Cubans under Fidel Castro's government there.
Much like U.S. President Barack Obama's move in 2014 to start normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, the agreement is being criticized by those who disagree that opening up economic and political ties will help people there.
"The deal puts economic interests ahead of the aspirations of freedom," Jose Azel, a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, told USA Today. "It means the European Union is turning its back on the Cuban people."
The EU and Cuba already have an active trade relationship. Member countries of the EU represent about 20 percent of the island's trade and one-third of tourists there come from Europe. In addition to European companies operating there, EU countries sent $2.34 billion in products to Cuba in 2015 and imported about $570 million worth of goods.
"The aim of the [agreement] is to create a more predictable and transparent atmosphere for economic operators and increase their economic capacity to produce, trade and create jobs," EU officials said in a statement that echoes Obama's hopes to help Cubans by easing decades old restrictions against trade with Cuba.
Some in Europe and other places have voiced concern that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump may roll back some of Obama's actions on Cuba based on human rights violations that many feel have never been addressed.
"The developments in Washington that will come as of the end of January onwards will not affect in any way the relations between the European Union and Cuba," said European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. "We are friends, we are partners. We want to work together and we will work together. The impact of this on others, it's not for me to judge."