Cuba and U.S. close to restoring diplomatic ties after ‘highly productive’ meeting

Miami Herald

By: Mimi Whitefield and Jym Wyss

WASHINGTON-After two days of negotiations, the head of the U.S. delegation said Friday that the United States and Cuba are so close in their quest to renew diplomatic ties and open embassies that another round of talks might not be necessary.

Even though Cuba has now achieved two of its major goals during the talks and there were expectations that a breakthrough might be announced, there was still no deal after the fourth round of talks, which concluded Friday morning at the U.S. State Department.

“This round was highly productive,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson during a briefing after the talks. “I don’t know that we will need another round.”

She said it was possible that the remaining issues, which center on how embassies will be run, might be ironed out in meetings between the heads of the Interests Sections in both countries.

Despite the lack of a breakthrough, Josefina Vidal, director general of the U.S. division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the leader of the Cuban delegation, said both sides were committed to continue their exchange on “issues related to the functioning of embassies.”

She said the two sides had discussed “every aspect” of how the embassies and diplomats would operate and “we have continued to make progress.”

But neither she nor Jacobson detailed the areas where the two sides had advanced.

Since the beginning of the negotiations, the United States has pressed for free movement of its diplomats around the island so they can talk to Cubans from every walk of life, as well as non-interference with shipments to its diplomatic mission and Cubans trying to visit its future embassy. Cuba considers U.S. outreach to dissidents and democracy advocates meddling in its internal affairs.

The fourth round of talks was part of a process that began Dec. 17 after President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that — after more than a half century of hostility and isolation — the two countries planned to forge a new relationship, reestablish diplomatic ties and open respective embassies.

“This has not been an easy task given our complicated history,” said Jacobson. But she said, “We have gotten much closer each time we talk.”

“I do think they’re close,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This was all about the embassies and they didn’t have a deliverable. I think one of the issues is personnel numbers. To have a functioning embassy, the United States will have to beef up personnel. The problem is the Cubans are suspicious of everything.”

Another sticking point has been the rules for movement of diplomats outside their respective capitals, he said.

Jacobson said the United States has been “pretty clear” that it expects its Havana embassy to operate “within that range” of how other U.S. embassies operate around the world.

Opponents of the opening continue to chafe at what they see as the United States giving up too much in the negotiations and not getting much from the Cubans in return.

Going into the talks, Cuba had said it would be difficult to open an embassy without a bank to serve its diplomatic missions in the United States and while it was still on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The United States added Cuba to its list in 1982 in response to its fomenting revolution in the Americas.

Both those issues have been resolved.

After a review that began Dec. 17, the administration found Cuba no longer supported terrorist activity and was committed to not engaging in acts of terrorism in the future. The president sent a 45-day notice to Congress that he planned to take Cuba off the list. The 45-day period ends May 29 and the removal will take effect as soon as notice is published in the Federal Register a day or two after that.

Cuba’s U.S. diplomatic missions have worked on a cash and money order only basis for more than a year after losing their former banker, M&T Bank of Buffalo, New York. Cuba’s continued presence on the list made bankers hesitant to pick up the Cuba business because of fears of running afoul of regulations on sanctioned nations. But this week, Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank said that at the request of the State Department it would begin handling the accounts of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and its employees.

The Interests Section, in turn, announced Thursday that it would resume full consular services, which had been hampered by the difficulties in receiving payments for visas, passports and other documents required by Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

“The Obama administration has not asked for a single concession from the Castros yet the Cuban regime continues to make demands of the United States,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “The Castro regime has still not returned fugitives from American justice or liberated its unjustly imprisoned political prisoners.”

However, in a separate gesture of goodwill that wasn’t part of the normalization process, Castro released 53 political prisoners last year, although some were subsequently rearrested.

Vidal also said that since the normalization talks began, the two sides have held technical meetings on a range of issues, including civil aviation, human trafficking, human rights, migration, marine protected areas and immigration fraud. She also said they hoped to hold an exchange soon about fighting infectious diseases.

In a blog post, Capitol Hill Cubans called the U.S. delegation the “worst negotiators ever” for caving into the Cubans.

But James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a new advocacy group that is pushing for an end to the embargo, took a more positive view of the fourth round of negotiations.

“Just five months after the historic shift in Cuba policy, this week’s high-level diplomatic talks show exactly why engagement was necessary after 54 years of isolation,” he said. “It is clear that significant differences exist between our countries, but the only way to move forward on them is to sit down face-to-face and firmly make it clear where we stand.”

Williams said the next step is for the U.S. to remove the embargo. Obama has said that as part of the normalization process, he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo.

“Now Congress should do its job and lift the travel and trade ban so that we stop waiting and begin connecting with and investing in the Cuban people,” Williams said.