The head of the Cuban Interests Section said Tuesday that despite the embargo, President Barack Obama still has room to expand the United States’ relationship with Cuba using executive authority.
Even the Helms Burton Act, which imposes many conditions before the embargo can be lifted, is open to legal interpretation, said José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S.
The career diplomat spoke on the campus of New College of Florida at an event organized by the Sarasota World Affairs Council and Cuba Standard, a digital news service that focuses on the Cuban economy and business.
Cabañas’ comments came hours after Cuban leader Raúl Castro told reporters in Havana that the two countries would not exchange ambassadors until after Cuba comes off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That is expected to happen on May 29.
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The United States put Cuba on the list in 1982 because of its revolutionary activities in Latin America and Africa, but Cuba has long complained that it never should have been put on the list, which carries financial sanctions.
“This sort of unjust accusation is about to be lifted and we’ll be able to name ambassadors,” Castro said after seeing off French President Francois Hollande at the Havana airport.
But Cabañas said that Castro’s remarks didn’t mean the exchange of ambassadors will happen “the day after May 29.’’
The United States and Cuba have had three negotiating sessions since the two countries announced on Dec. 17 that they planned to renew diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors.
“We have had an ongoing dialogue,” said Cabañas , who has taken part in the negotiations with the United States. But he told the Miami Herald in a brief interview that there could be another negotiating session if both sides decide it’s necessary.
Cuba and the United States have not had diplomatic relations for more than a half-century. Even before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, “those days were not even normal” with the United States, Cabañas said.
“We have to discover together what that [normal] means,” he said.
On Monday, Cabañas arrived in Gainesville, where he attended a law conference, and on Tuesday he toured Port Manatee, which has been mentioned as a possible hopping-off point for ferry service between Florida and Cuba; addressed the Greater Manatee Chamber of Commerce, and toured the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, which has a research exchange program with Cuba.
During his meeting at Port Manatee, Cabañas met with a small group of business executives, including two from the ferry industry. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets has issued at least six licenses to U.S. companies interested in offering ferry service between Florida and Cuban ports.
But before ferry service can begin, the companies must negotiate port access with the Cubans and the U.S. Coast Guard must inspect the potential Cuban ports.
A Cuban law that bars those born in Cuba from entering or leaving the country by vessel also could be a hindrance. Cabañas indicated that the law is something that may be addressed in the future.
During a luncheon meeting at the Manatee chamber, Cabañas said that the Cuban Interests Section, which lost its banker 15 months ago and has been operating on a cash basis since, was in negotiations with a Florida-based bank to handle the accounts of the Interests Section and Cuba’s permanent mission at the United Nations.
At the New College event, Cabañas also talked about the economic changes Cuba has been making for the past several years, including its new foreign investment law, tax code and container port and special economic zone in Mariel.
Already, he said, most commercial facilities at the Port of Havana have been dismantled and transferred to Mariel with an eye toward connecting to the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal, which is creating a “new dynamic in the region for transshipment.”
Ports in the southern United States, he suggested, could have links with Mariel’s deep-water port. But maritime analysts have said that as long as the U.S. embargo is in place, Mariel isn’t expected to become a major transshipment hub.