Cuban diplomat heading talks with U.S. doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind

In this Dec. 20, 2014 photo, Cuba’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, front row center, embraces Gerardo Hernandez, member of “The Cuban Five,” at the closing of the twice-annual legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana.
In this Dec. 20, 2014 photo, Cuba’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, front row center, embraces Gerardo Hernandez, member of “The Cuban Five,” at the closing of the twice-annual legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana. AP

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, who will head the Cuban delegation in this week's talks to begin normalization of diplomatic ties with the United States, is described as well prepared, intelligent and a keen observer of U.S. policy — and she is a woman who doesn't mince words.

In February 2013 after President Barack Obama said in an interview with Telemundo that it was time for Cuba to “join the 21st century,” the senior Cuban official shot back: “It's unfortunate that President Obama continues to be poorly advised and ill-informed about the Cuban reality, as well as the sentiments of his own people who desire normalization of our relationship.”

A few months after that in mid-2013, however, secret talks began that resulted in the Dec. 17 announcement that the two countries were resuming diplomatic relations. That same year, Vidal, who is the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s top diplomat for North American affairs, met twice with State Department officials before migration talks, which had been on a two-year hiatus, resumed that July.

Vidal’s U.S. counterpart at the normalization talks on Thursday will be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. The two negotiators have gotten to know each other very well over the years.

While Jacobson speaks fluent Spanish, Vidal is fluent in English.

“Very well-informed on policy issues, very intelligent and up-to-date,” is the way Vivian Mannerud, who has long been involved in the Cuba travel business, describes Vidal.

“She’s very personable but she will speak her mind — although with respect and decency,” said Mannerud. “She’s professional but there is no fooling her. She won’t take any crap from you.”

During the current round of U.S-Cuba migration talks, which begin Wednesday in Havana, Vidal also will lead the Cuban delegation. Jacobson is not expected to take part in the migration talks, which will be headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee on the U.S. side.

Earlier this week, Vidal sat in during a meeting of Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and a U.S. congressional delegation headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

“She’s often on the tarmac welcoming visiting congressional delegations,” said Charles A. Serrano, managing director of Chicago-based Antilles Strategy Group, which has taken congressional leaders to Cuba.

When Vidal visited Columbia University in September 2013 to speak at the School of International and Public Affairs, Provost John Coatsworth introduced her as “one of Cuba’s leading Americanologists.

“She is a perceptive and sophisticated student of U.S. politics and policy,” he said.

Vidal talked about the “deep economic transformation” that Cuba was undergoing as well as how foreign investment was poised to become a key factor in her country’s development plans.

She also discussed the process of transferring key government positions from the older generation to a younger, more diverse generation.

The diplomat herself is a member of that new generation and is “seen as an up and coming leader,” said Serrano. She’s a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.

“Cuba has changed more in two, three years than it had in the previous 20 years,” Vidal said during her Columbia talk. “The United States seems to be ignoring these transformations that are taking place in our country,” she said, and wasting opportunities for business participation in the island.

She emphasized that both countries could gain a lot from “a mutually beneficial relationship based on common interests and respect for our differences.”

Vidal would like to see the United States go beyond the diplomatic and commercial opening that Obama outlined and lift the five-decades-old embargo, which would take an act of Congress.

“Look back. When have you seen a negative response to the American government removing any type of restriction?” Vidal told the Associated Press in December. “What we say is: Get rid of the excuse and put us to the test! We don’t have any reason to reject anything that comes from the United States that’s positive, and that are measures taken to loosen the blockade (the Cuban terms for the embargo).”

Vidal is well-known in Washington. Not only did she serve at the Cuban Interests Section where she was a first secretary from 1999 to 2003, but she was later a key negotiator in talks with the United States on migration, direct mail delivery service and other topics of mutual interest.

While she was at the Cuban Interests Section, the head of the mission, Fernando Remírez, served as the Cuban point man in the case of Elián González, the rafter boy who was found adrift at sea after his mother perished. The boy became caught up in a custody battle between his father in Cuba and his Miami relatives.

When Elián was finally returned to Cuba on June 28, 2000 after a court ruled he belonged with his father, Vidal was shown escorting the boy and his family members on the plane home and was photographed on the tarmac in Havana as she got off the plane, said Julia Sweig, a U.S. scholar who has written extensively on Cuba.

“That was one of the first episodes where she became a bit of a public figure to Cubans. She really caught attention,” Sweig said.

That moment helped to propel Vidal to her current status as not just a trusted foreign ministry figure, but a senior government official, said Sweig. “That was a defining moment for her.”

As first secretary, Vidal served as a cultural and academic liaison and traveled to U.S. universities, including Harvard, which at the time had many academic exchanges with the University of Havana and other Cuban institutions. During that era, Cuban diplomats were allowed to travel around the United States.

But her time at the Cuban Interests Section is not without a whiff of scandal.

The United States expelled 14 Cuban diplomats, including seven at the Cuban mission to the United Nations and seven at the Cuban Interests Section, for espionage in 2003. They were given 10 days to depart.

Among those expelled were First Secretary Jose Anselmo Lopez Perera, the husband of Vidal. She herself was not expelled but accompanied him back to Havana where she joined the Ministry of Foreign Relations’ North American division. She became head of the U.S. division in 2006 and now heads the North American division.

In recent years, she has often served as a government spokesperson on thorny affairs with the United States such as the imprisonment of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was released by Cuba the same day renewed diplomatic ties were announced.

“While she was in D.C., everyone liked her very much; she was personable,” said Serrano. At the time she left Washington, “she was doing an excellent job of building relationships,” he said. “She is one of the best people they have.

“She’s an avid reader who studies American life and American thought,” he added.

Vidal studied international relations both in Havana and Moscow.

She has worked at a University of Havana think tank that studies the United States, was an analyst at the Cuban Embassy in Paris from 1990 to 1997 and was a coordinator for the U.S. analysis group at the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Now with two women — Vidal and Jacobson — facing each other at the negotiating table Thursday, Serrano said, “Perhaps there is a message to be sent: Women are better negotiators than men.”

McClatchy foreign affairs reporter Hannah Allam contributed to this story.

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