U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said enough progress was made in talks with Cuba on Friday that it might be possible to reestablish diplomatic relations by the Summit of the Americas in April.
“I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas,” she said after the conclusion of the second round of U.S.-Cuba talks at the U.S. State Department.
Josefina Vidal, head of the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry’s U.S. division and the head of the Cuban delegation at the talks, said both sides “had a good meeting today.”
“We made progress in our discussions. For the second time, delegations sat down at the negotiating table to discuss as equals the terms for reestablishing diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies,” Vidal said.
Jacobson said the United States viewed renewing ties and reopening embassies “as critical early steps of the longer term process of normalizing relations more than half a century after we severed relations.”
Going into the talks, Cuba said it hoped for progress on two issues: the removal of Cuba from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism and the banking dilemma faced by its diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations.
For the past year, the Cuban missions have been without a bank, meaning everything from receiving visa fees to paying their light bills must be done on a cash basis.
After the closed-door meeting, Vidal said, “We feel confident that in the following weeks we will see progress on both issues so we can move on towards the resumption of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies.”
The two issues are tied because Cuba’s continued presence on the list has made banks wary of handling Cuban accounts and running afoul of U.S. laws related to sanctioned countries. In recent years, other countries have faced similar problems in finding a banker.
After the first round of talks, Cuba seemed to indicate that the resumption of diplomatic relations couldn’t go forward as long as Cuba remained on the list and hadn’t found a banker.
But Vidal said Friday the Cuban delegation hadn’t linked the issues. “No conditions but we believe this is important to solve in process toward reestablishing diplomatic relations,” she said.
The two sides also discussed nuts-and-bolts issues, such as assuring that U.S. diplomats will be able to freely travel throughout Cuba and talk to dissidents if they want, that Cuban citizens aren’t impeded from visiting the U.S. diplomatic mission and that shipments arriving at a future embassy won’t be hampered.
The United States has continued to insist that its diplomats be able to see as “broad a slice of Cuban life as possible” as part of their jobs and have access to all kinds of people, Jacobson said.
The talks are part of a shift in Cuba policy outlined Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama aimed at bringing about change in Cuba through engagement and support of the Cuban people. The United States has maintained the best way of having impact on the differences that still separate the two countries is through renewing diplomatic relations and talking.
The United States might be feeling more time pressure than the Cubans because the White House hopes to show progress on its rapprochement with Cuba before it heads to the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama.
The United States’ former policy of isolating Cuba has been a source of much friction with Latin American nations who have rallied around the island as a symbol against imperialism in the region.
“The president has to come to the summit with something in his hands,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. “But the Cubans want slow, measured steps [toward renewing diplomatic relations]. They are in no hurry.”
Both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro plan to attend the summit and it would be their first time they’ve been in the same room since they jointly announced in December that the two countries planned to resume diplomatic ties. Their only previous encounter was a quick handshake in South Africa at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013.
“To be sitting in the same room at the summit with Raúl Castro and still have Cuba one of four nations on the list could really backfire on the president,” Marczak said.
An expedited review of whether Cuba should remain on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is underway in Washington. If the president decides to remove Cuba from the list, he must notify Congress 45 days before the decision takes effect.
“For Cuba, it’s a matter of justice. We think we should never have been a part of this list,” Vidal said.
The list also includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba was added in 1982 at a time when it was helping Marxist insurgencies, but now it is hosting meetings to facilitate a peace process between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas in that country.
However, Cuba continues to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States for decades. Among them are former Black Liberation Army leader JoAnne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur. She was convicted in the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and fled to Cuba after a prison break.
Cuba has granted her and other U.S. fugitives political asylum. Vidal said the number of U.S. citizens in that group is small and that Cuba is not open to discussions about them at the talks.
Earlier this week, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, sent letters to both Secretary of State John Kerry and FBI Director James B. Comey requesting a full list of the fugitives receiving sanctuary in Cuba.
“Before Cuba is removed from the list of state sponsors of terror, the Castro regime must be held to account for these acts and American fugitives must be brought back to face justice in the U.S.,” Menendez wrote in the letter to Kerry.
Jacobson said that no date had been set for a next round of talks but said both sides have agreed to stay in “permanent communication’’ on a variety of issues.
“It makes it sound like we’re not going to sleep,” she joked.
Jacobson said the two sides had agreed to have a number of dialogues on issues of mutual interest in coming weeks, including one on the structure for a human rights conversation.
While human rights, she said, is “our most challenging, the most difficult perhaps’’ of any of the ongoing dialogues with Cuba, it is also “one of the most important.”