U.S.-Cuba talks head to Washington

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson talks during a press briefing during the second day of talks with Cuban officials, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. She will lead the U.S. delegation at the second round of talks Friday in Washington.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson talks during a press briefing during the second day of talks with Cuban officials, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. She will lead the U.S. delegation at the second round of talks Friday in Washington. AP

The second round of U.S.-Cuba talks, which will be held Friday at the massive limestone Department of State building in a wintery Washington, D.C., is expected to be a nuts-and-bolts negotiating session to restore diplomatic ties between the two nations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, who heads the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry’s U.S. division, will lead their respective delegations as they did in Havana during the first round of talks on Jan. 22.

During that historic closed-door meeting aimed at ending a 53-year hiatus in diplomatic relations between the two neighbors, both sides laid out their positions and it was clear there were differences.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Wednesday this round of conversations will be devoted entirely to matters related to opening embassies — unlike the Havana talks, which also included discussions about human rights and areas of mutual cooperation such as the fight against Ebola, environmental protection and combating human and narcotics trafficking.

While the Havana talks were “historic,” the official said Friday’s talks “may seem a bit disappointingly workman-like.”

The U.S. side is hopeful that renewal of diplomatic ties and reopening of embassies could take place before the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama, but the State Department official added, “I’m not sure” there’s enough time.

Among the topics the U.S. delegation wants to discuss are ensuring the ability of its diplomats to travel freely throughout the island, unfettered access by Cubans to the future embassy and unimpeded deliveries to it.

During the Havana talks, Vidal said the banking problem at Cuba’s missions in Washington and at the United Nations would have to be resolved before embassies could be opened. For the past year, no bank has wanted to handle Cuba’s accounts, putting the missions on a cash-only basis.

The United States has been trying to help Cuba find a banker but so far there are no takers.

The State Department official said a Cuban embassy could open and continue to operate on a cash basis, but added, “That is really uncomfortable for them and frankly unsafe. They can [have an embassy without a bank] but all of us would rather they didn’t have to do this.”

One reason U.S. banks are so hesitant to bank with Cuba is that the country remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a status that makes banks wary they could run afoul of U.S. law if they do business with sanctioned countries. An expedited review of Cuba’s status on the list is underway.

The talks are part of a new direction in U.S.-Cuba relations announced on Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. As part of the new policy, Obama also chipped away at the embargo with measures allowing trade with Cuba’s emerging private sector, more travel by Americans and an opening for the U.S. telecom industry to do business in Cuba if Havana chooses to engage.

Meanwhile, the rapprochement is continuing on other fronts.

The State Department’s Office of International Communications and Information Policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, for example, hopes to meet soon with their Cuban counterparts to see what will be possible in terms of a telecom opening, said Assistant Secretary of State Charles Rivkin.

The new U.S. policy allows U.S companies to sell personal communications equipment in Cuba as well as work on projects to improve Cuba’s outdated telecommunications system.

Cuba also has proposed having a separate dialogue on human rights with the United States, which the U.S. delegation has accepted — although Jacobson has conceded the two sides’ ideas about how such a dialogue should be structured are probably quite different.

While these topics won’t be discussed Friday, it’s possible that dates will be set for various dialogues.

Earlier this week, New York Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said talking directly with Cuban officials is important.

Engel, who accompanied House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on a recent trip to Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said the delegation raised the issue of human rights at every meeting they had with Cuban officials.

“I believe the ball is now in the Cuban government’s court to respond by ending the harassment of political activists and releasing political prisoners,” Engel said. “For our policies to continue to change, it’s going to take give and take on both sides, and frankly I’d like to see some more changes on the Cuban side, and I said that in Havana.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has been critical of the Congressional delegation, saying members had sent “worrying signals to the regime that human rights are, in fact, negotiable.”

But in general, Engel said “average people that we met on the street were all very, very positive” about the rapprochement.

South Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, elected to Congress in 2014, was hardly as sanguine. “It is quite an insult that on the week commemorating the anniversary of the shoot-down, the State Department will roll out the red carpet to Cuban officials who represent the murderous regime that killed” four Brothers to the Rescue pilots, Curbelo said in a statement. Tuesday marked the 19th anniversary of the day Cuban MiGs shot down two civilian planes from Miami as they neared Cuban territory.

Meanwhile, two bills have been introduced in Congress to lift the embargo and further expand Cuba travel for Americans, but anti-rapprochement forces in Congress, including the Cuban-American delegation, want to roll back the opening toward Cuba.

Getting the two embassies open is just the opening salvo in the much more difficult task of normalizing relations between two countries that have been on hostile terms for much of the past half century.

“An embassy will be opened in the next few months, but this is perhaps one of the easier topics of negotiation that the two countries will face,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “The Cuban government needs to maintain its anti-U.S. posture for domestic and international credibility, so expect it to maintain a tough position at any negotiations.”

Raúl Castro has said before any normalization in the relationship, the five-decades old embargo against Cuba would have to be lifted, the United States would have to return the Naval base at Guantánamo Bay, there would need to be compensation for the “human and economic damage” caused by the embargo and transmissions of Radio and TV Martí would have to end.

Second round of U.S.-Cuba talks

Where: U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.

Delegations: Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson heads the U.S. delegation; Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s chief of its U.S. division, heads the Cuban side.

Focus: Matters related to opening embassies in both countries.

Next round of talks: No date set. ‘We will keep working until we get this done,’ said a senior U.S. State Department official.

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