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US, Cuba Hold First Formal Talks on Human Rights

FILE - Javier Yanez stands on his balcony in Old Havana, where he hung U.S. and Cuban flags after learning that the two nations would begin restoring diplomatic ties, Dec. 19, 2014.

The United States and Cuba met on Tuesday to discuss how they intend to treat future dialog on the thorny issue of human rights as the countries move toward restoring diplomatic ties.

While no major announcements are expected from the meeting, it was the first formal dialog tackling human rights between the countries since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they were seeking to restore diplomatic ties.

The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the State Department's assistant secretary for human rights and democracy. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and law at the ministry of foreign affairs, led the Cuban side.

"This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba," a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Human rights are a priority."

The United States has pressed Cuba to improve human rights conditions on the communist-led island and expressed concern, in particular, about the jailing of political dissidents and activists and treatment of political prisoners.

Cuba has told Washington it will not tolerate meddling in its internal affairs and to stop supporting dissidents. It has pointed at U.S. police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City as human rights issues in the United States.

Obama, a Democrat, needs the Republican-controlled Congress to completely normalize relations with Cuba, but Republicans such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio have opposed engagement as long as Cuba remains a one-party state, represses dissidents and controls the media.

Geoff Thale, program director for human rights group WOLA, said Cuba has often taken actions in response to outside forces, referring to calls from the Vatican to release political prisoners.

"The first meeting is intended to discuss the structure of future talks, and the dialog is going to have to overcome a legacy of mistrust, as well as the vast conceptual differences between the two countries on the topic of human rights," Thale said.