The fourth time could be the charm as the United States and Cuba head into their next round of talks aimed at reestablishing diplomatic ties and opening embassies.
The two sides began meeting Thursday morning at the State Department at a time when a senior State Department official said the face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro last month at the Summit of the Americas in Panama renewed a sense of commitment to move forward on the rapprochement announced between the two countries on Dec. 17.
“We were ready to get together right after that meeting with President Castro, and our counterparts weren’t necessarily as quick to be prepared as we were,” said the official, who briefed the media on the talks on condition of anonymity. “I do think we’re closer than we have been in the past, and I think my counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will head the U.S. delegation at this fourth round of talks, and her counterpart will be Josefina Vidal, who heads the United States Office at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.
In Havana, Gustavo Machin, deputy director general of the U.S. office, told reporters that progress in two areas — Cuba’s potential removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May and getting a bank to handle the accounts of its diplomatic missions in Washington and New York — set up an “appropriate” context for reestablishing relations and opening embassies.
Cuba’s diplomatic missions have been working on a cash basis for more than a year after their former banker, M&T, said it was getting out of the business of handling the accounts of foreign missions. The State Department official said Cuba has found a new bank and there were reports Wednesday that identified it as Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank, which has 21 branches in Florida, including offices in Coral Gables and Doral.
Rules for the conduct of diplomats in the future embassies also have been a sticking point between the two sides.
The United States has said its diplomats should be able to travel freely throughout the island, engaging Cubans from all walks of life. Cuba views such visits by U.S. diplomats to dissidents and democracy advocates as meddling in its internal affairs.
On the Cuban side, a point of contention has been U.S. democracy programs and specifically the training of independent journalists at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The Interests Section brings in journalism professors and journalists to teach the courses.
Castro has said he brought up the training of independent journalists during his conversation with Obama last month. “What most concerns me is that they continue doing illegal things. For example, graduating independent journalists,” he said.
“These are issues that have been discussed in the previous two meetings and will be tackled again,” said Machin.
The U.S. official acknowledged that Internet training and basic journalism courses are offered at the Interests Section as they are at many U.S. embassies.
Machin said there is nothing in the Vienna Convention of diplomatic and consular relations, which the two sides are using as a template in the talks, that “indicates embassies are educational centers and this is part of the behavior of a mission.”
“I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that the Cuban government does not like the democracy programs that we have had,” said the U.S. official. The State Department will continue to request funds for democracy programs, said the official, adding, “We also believe that this direct engagement is a way of directly supporting the Cuban people more effectively than we have in the past.”
The official said the democracy programs — whose aim is to support civil society and promote freedom of information — have changed over time and “will continue to evolve to reflect reality on the ground in both Cuba and the United States.”
Meanwhile, the official said that the two sides are steadily working through the checklist necessary to open embassies: “There are checks being made in the box.”
Because the United States and Cuba don’t have diplomatic relations, they operate interests sections in their old embassy buildings under the protection of the Swiss government. To reopen embassies, the Swiss must be notified of the cancellation of the protective agreements and the president has to give Congress 15 days notice that the status of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana is changing to an embassy.
Sending that notification to Congress doesn’t have to wait until the United States and Cuba reach agreement on opening embassies, but could be sent to Congress at any time as the two sides continue to negotiate.