STATE DEPARTMENT —
The effort by the United States and Cuba to bridge gaps caused by more than 50 years of mutual hostility will require a heavy emphasis on relationship-building, says a former high-ranking State Department official.
Retired ambassador Thomas Pickering, who served as under secretary of state for political affairs during the Clinton administration, said one of the biggest challenges for U.S. and Cuban diplomats will be to establish ties that allow them to speak frankly to each other.
He said diplomats laid the groundwork in the lead-up to the December announcement that the two countries will start an effort to normalize relations.
"They involve very important questions like dealing with prisoners and dealing with the atmosphere that would be set, and setting up the conversations that needed to take place," said Pickering.
President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro met on the sidelines of last week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama. Also, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, had their first face-to-face meeting since the normalization process began.
Kerry told ABC’s This Week program that Washington has embarked on a policy of transformation with Havana.
“It will begin slowly,” said Kerry. “The first thing is diplomatic relations, he said.
Perhaps Kerry’s best-known relationship building effort involves Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
State Department officials said the two diplomats held more than 10 hours of one-on-one talks during just the most recent round of nuclear negotiations.
Pickering said he expects Kerry also will try to develop a strong relationship with Rodriguez.
"Personal relationship does not mean you give away the store. It means, in effect, that you can speak very frankly to each other and have that opportunity to build understanding," said Pickering.
Some Cuban human rights activists have expressed concern that the U.S. could lose its leverage with Cuba in its bid to normalize relations, which includes lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking restrictions.
However, Pickering said stronger ties actually could give U.S. officials an opportunity to voice human rights concerns to a higher level of the Cuban government.
There could be other benefits, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow with the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
In an April report published by Brookings, Piccone said the shift toward critical engagement with Cuba offered the U.S. a chance to advance its strategic interests in a variety of areas, including counter-narcotics and counterterrorism cooperation, aviation and maritime security, disaster relief, human trafficking and migration.