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US, Cuba Make Progress in Restoring Diplomatic Ties

  • Mary Alice Salinas

The United States and Cuba say progress was made in a second round of talks in Washington.

The two sides met Friday to explore the possibility of opening embassies in Washington and Havana after five decades of estrangement.

Diplomats from both sides met at the U.S. State Department in Washington for day-long meetings focused on working out details.

The talks were said to be so productive that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the head of the U.S. delegation, speculated that embassies in Washington and Havana could be opened by the April Summit of the Americas in Panama.

The talks are part of U.S. President Barack Obama's initiative to end the trade embargo against Cuba.

Key issues

Sticking points include how much access U.S. diplomats will have to the people of Cuba and how much access Cuba will have to financial services in the U.S.

Havana also is pressuring the U.S. government to remove Cuba from its list of states that sponsor terrorism, something that has become a key factor in the talks.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the issue regarding the states-sponsoring terrorism list is separate from the ongoing talks, but one that Washington is reviewing.

If President Barack Obama decides to take Cuba off the list, he must forward that to Congress, where, by law, the removal cannot take effect for 45 days. That casts doubt on whether the U.S. and Cuba will be able to restore diplomatic ties before the Summit of the Americas in April, as U.S. officials had hoped.

Restoring relations

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who heads the U.S. delegation, has said Washington wants to move quickly to restore diplomatic ties. The Cuban delegation is being led by Josefina Vidal, the head of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry for North American Affairs.

Afterwards, Josefina Vidal, the head of Cuba's delegation, said the removal from the list was not a pre-condition for renewal of diplomatic ties. However, she said "it would be difficult to explain that Cuba and the U.S. have re-established normal diplomatic relations while Cuba is kept on that list that we believe we have never belonged to."

Both sides are experiencing domestic pressure about the policy change, which moves the nations closer toward normalizing relations. In the U.S., critics have raised questions about human rights issues in the Communist nation. Hardliners in Cuba have expressed skepticism about restoring ties with the United States, which some believe is bent on regime change.

“They want to make sure that if the U.S. diplomats in Cuba have access - free access - they’re not going to be plotting with opposition figures and dissidents who are intent on changing the regime,” said analyst Michael Shifter with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

Testing the water

Shifter said the current negotiations to establish embassies will be a test of how likely the long-estranged countries are to continue on a path toward normalization.

“There’s a lot of mistrust on both sides. And there is angst, anxiety. And it’s gotta be one step at a time,” Shifter said.

The first meeting between the U.S. and Cuban delegations took place in Havana in January.

In December, President Barack Obama announced an end to the U.S. isolation of Cuba in favor of a policy to engage and empower the Cuban people. Since then, the U.S. has significantly eased sanctions on Cuba, opening the island to expanded U.S. travel and trade, and some financial restrictions were loosened.

The U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1960 and closed its embassy one year later after communist leader Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed government.

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