Historic talks begin this week in Havana

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson takes part in a donation ceremony of security equipment in El Salvador in 2012.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson takes part in a donation ceremony of security equipment in El Salvador in 2012. AFP/Getty Images

The United States will bring up human rights during this week’s talks with Cuba, but when the two sides meet in Havana, the main thrust of the historic conversations will be getting respective embassies open, a State Department official said Monday.

The U.S. and Cuba announced Dec. 17 that the two countries, which have been on hostile terms for much of the past half century, would renew diplomatic relations. Havana and Washington will hold their first round of normalization talks Thursday.

The day before, the countries will hold ongoing migration talks, which were scheduled before the diplomatic breakthrough that also included a loosening of U.S. travel and trade restrictions and the release of prisoners jailed by both sides.

A senior State Department official said during a briefing Monday that among the topics the United States plans to pursue are staffing levels at the prospective embassies, a desire for unimpeded deliveries to its diplomatic mission in Havana as well as for free access to it by Cubans, and the lifting of geographic restrictions on diplomats’ travel.

The United States also plans to ask the Cubans to begin the process of addressing U.S. claims for property of Americans that was expropriated after the Cuban Revolution.

The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified more than 5,900 U.S. claims, which were worth about $1.8 billion at the time they were expropriated and are now valueda at around $7 billion with interest.

Pointing out that “normalization is not a reward,” the official said that the United States had embarked on its policy shift because it is in the “U.S. national interest” as well as supporting the Cuban people.

“We will discuss human rights issues directly with the Cuban government at the migration and normalization talks,” the official said. “Human rights will remain at the center of our policy.”

Although the State Department official said it was unclear how much could be accomplished in the first round of talks, the official added, “I’m not oblivious to the weight of history. It is a big deal.”

The official said the U.S. hoped the talks would be the start of engagement on many issues from enhanced counter-narcotics cooperation to more cooperation on global health security and the fight against ebola.

“To me this is wonderful because the two sides are talking — just that they’re talking. This is a huge step toward accomplishing many more things,” said Vivian Mannerud, whose Miami company helped pioneer air charter travel between the United States and Cuba.

Also on Monday 78 notables, including Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and three former assistant secretaries of state for the Western Hemisphere, along with prominent Cuban-Americans, sent an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to work with Congress to update Cuba policy to reflect “21st century realities.”

“Our new posture of engagement will advance our national interests and our values by empowering the Cuban people’s capacity to work toward a more democratic and prosperous country — conditions that are very much in the U.S. interests,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, the Cuban-American delegation in Congress has vowed to explore ways to try to stop the president’s new Cuba policy.

The letter writers also said that they were encouraged that “the U.S. government will continue to call on Havana to respect the human rights of the Cuban people” and the president’s “guarantees that the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture and the International Red Cross will travel to the island.”

Among the South Floridians who signed the letter were businessmen Mike Fernandez, Carlos Saladrigas, Alfonso and Andres Fanjul, Paul Cejas and Ricky Arriola, as well as former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola, lawyer Pedro Freyre, former U.S. Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, former Coral Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, and the Episcopal Bishop of Southeast Florida, the Rev. Leo Frade.

The letter was released the day before President Obama's State of the Union address. Former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was recently released after serving five years in a Cuban prison, and his wife Judy are among the guests who have been invited to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama's box — perhaps a signal the president will discuss the new U.S.-Cuba relationship.

As the president said at a press conference two days after making the announcement on a new Cuba policy: “My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.”

Gross’ continued imprisonment had been a roadblock in improved relations between Washington and Havana. Secret, high-level talks that began in mid-2013 to secure his release expanded to include a new relationship between the two countries.

The Cubans released Gross as a humanitarian gesture on Dec. 17 and as part of the deal three Cuban spies serving long terms in U.S. jails were returned to the island; a CIA operative was released by the Cubans. In a separate gesture, Cuban leader Raúl Castro released 53 political prisoners.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will lead the U.S. delegation to the normalization talks and Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary for South America and Cuba, will lead the migration talks for the United States.

It’s been 38 years since a U.S. official at the assistant secretary level went to Havana.

The Cuban counterpart will be Josefina Vidal, head of North American affairs for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Jacobson, who last visited Cuba in 2011, will be in Havana from Wednesday to Saturday. While in Cuba, she is expected to meet with dissidents and other members of civil society.

The senior State Department official said each country is different and it is hard to apply lessons in other efforts to resume relations, such as in Vietnam, to the process in Cuba.

“There is no template per se,” said the official.

But how quickly the talks advance and how far they go also depends on Cuba, the official said.

“What I don’t know is what the Cubans may be bringing to the table. A lot depends on the Cuban government’s willingness to engage,” the official said. “Diplomatic relations are restored by mutual consent of two governments.”

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