The latest round in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement got under way Tuesday when the two countries met in Washington to discuss the potentially divisive issue of human rights.
The State Department described the meeting as "professional" and said there was "broad agreement on the way forward for a future substantive dialogue." The timing or location for a future meeting weren't determined. But getting agreement on future talks could prove difficult because the two countries have strikingly different views on what constitutes respect for human rights.
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski led the U.S. delegation and his Cuban counterpart was Pedro Luis Pedroso, the Foreign Ministry deputy director for multilateral affairs and international law.
The United States has long been critical of Cuba’s policy of jailing dissidents and activists for exercising basic civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, as well as its treatment of political prisoners.
“This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba,” said a State Department spokesperson. “Human rights are, and will continue to be, a priority.”
Cuba, on the other hand, tends to view human rights more from a prism of quality of life and has said its health activism around the world is an example of its concern for human rights. The Cubans also want the opportunity to discuss the United States’ human rights record and to bring up issues such as excessive use of force by American police officers, poverty, and racism in applying the death penalty.
Cuba proposed the human rights dialogue, and when it repeated its call for such a meeting in January, the United States quickly agreed. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson has said human rights “is the area of the most profound disagreement” between the two countries.
“These talks are an indication of Cuba’s willingness to address any topic with the U.S., despite our differences, based on equality and reciprocity,” Pedroso told reporters in Havana last week.
But at the same time, he said, Cuba is “conscious of our profound differences with the government of the United States in terms of political systems, democracy, human rights and international law.”
The human rights dialogue is part of a process that began Dec. 17 when Cuba and the United States announced they were working toward reestablishing diplomatic relations and reopening embassies after a deep freeze of more than 50 years in the countries’ relationship.
There already have been dialogues between the two former adversaries on civil aviation, human trafficking and a telecommunications opening proposal by the United States to improve telecommunication and Internet links between the two countries.
A U.S. delegation led by Daniel Sepulveda, the coordinator for international communications and information policy, was in Havana for 48 hours last week.
A senior State Department official said in a briefing Monday that Cuba said its goals were the same as those outlined by the United Nations: 50 percent household Internet penetration by 2020 and 60 percent mobile penetration by 2020.
Cuba isn’t starting from zero in terms of connectivity, but the Cubans know they are behind, said the official. Lack of Internet access is depriving the Cuban people of knowledge, the official added.
Financing telecom equipment from the United States could be an issue for Cuba, the official said, who added there is “real potential” for U.S. telecom and Internet companies in Cuba “as long as there is a will on the Cuban side.”
The next step in the process will be the exchange of papers on Cuban and U.S. proposals.
So far, there have been three rounds of normalization talks. President Barack Obama has said he hopes that negotiations progress to a point where diplomatic relations can be renewed by the time of the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama on April 10-11.
During the last Summit of the Americas in Colombia in 2012, Cuba’s exclusion became a polarizing issue. Both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro will be in attendance at this year’s meeting.
It’s widely believed that the president needs to show concrete progress toward repairing the relationship with Cuba by the summit in order to mend fences with other regional allies.
One sticking point for Havana is Cuba’s continued presence on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which results in financial and regulatory sanctions against the island. On Dec. 17, Obama asked for a State Department review of whether Cuba should remain on the list.
“I think they’re very close,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa. “I do think the administration will act before the Summit.”
After the third round of talks in Havana on March 16, neither side made any announcements. But Castor said she took that as a positive sign showing that “they’re very seriously into the details.”