The United States and Cuba held historic normalization talks Thursday aimed at erasing more than five decades of corrosive relations, but there were no major breakthroughs and the two delegations remained apart on some key issues such as human rights.
Behind closed doors, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations’ top North American specialist, led their delegations in talks to reestablish diplomatic ties between the two nations.
The morning talks were more symbolic than eventful — they discussed measures such as staffing levels and other details of the operations of their prospective new embassies. Vidal said the two countries had developed a list of diplomatic formalities necessary before the embassies could open.
Still, a news conference after the morning session made it clear that there were quite a few differences that must be resolved before flags are flying over respective embassies.
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Jacobson, for example, said she brought up human rights, which the United States has said will remain central to its discussions with Cuba. “I did discuss that issue today; it was part of my conversation,” she said.
Asked about human rights at the same news conference, Vidal said: “We still haven’t taken up that theme in our discussions.” During the morning session, she said, negotiations focused exclusively on the reestablishment of embassies.
It could be they were both correct if the conversation took place on the sidelines of the talks or that Jacobson brought the topic up and wasn’t engaged by her Cuban counterparts.
However, human rights did come up during the afternoon session of the talks — perhaps not in the way the United States wanted.
Given Cuban concerns about human rights in the United States, its delegation proposed establishing a “respectful, reciprocal” dialogue on human rights, said Gustavo Machín, deputy director of the foreign ministry’s U.S. division.
During the afternoon, the two sides also reviewed areas of cooperation such as fighting Ebola, human trafficking, law enforcement and environmental protection. They reviewed various bilateral agreements and discussed recent trade proposals by President Barack Obama, including allowing U.S. companies to upgrade Cuba’s telecommunications system.
Both sides said they will keep the process going but no date was set for the next round of normalization talks — although Vidal said she expected the delegations would come up with a date in the next few weeks.
Still, it was huge for the United States and Cuba to reach the point where they were talking normalization after a half-century of hostility, which included the Cuban Missile Crisis, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, attempts to assassinate retired leader Fidel Castro and make his beard fall out, and more recently the shoot-down of four exile pilots by Cuban MiGs.
“Our presidents have taken steps to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust,” Jacobson said.
In a surprise announcement on Dec. 17 that included a prisoner release and U.S. offers to lift some restrictions on American travel and commerce with Cuba, Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro said that after 53 years the United States and Cuba once again planned diplomatic ties.
Although it wasn’t part of the deal, Castro also released 53 political prisoners on a list drawn up by the United States.
Getting the embassies open will be one of the simpler tasks the two sides face. Normalization of relations is a far more complicated and lengthy task.
“Our efforts to normalize relations will be a continuing process that goes beyond establishing diplomatic relations or opening an embassy,” said Jacobson. “Today, we have made further steps in this new direction.”
Normalization issues are “complex and reflect the profound differences between our countries,” Jacobson said.
Vidal said the reestablishment of relations will be difficult as long as Cuba remains “unjustly” on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
A review of Cuba’s continued presence on the list was one of the promises Obama made Dec. 17.
A senior State Department official said the review began that same day and is expected to be completed in less than six months.
Before embassies can be opened, Vidal also said the banking problem at the Cuban Interests Section, which takes the place of an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations, needs to be resolved.
For almost a year, the diplomatic mission in Washington has been unable to find a U.S or foreign bank with U.S. offices or offices in a third country willing to handle its accounts.
Its former bank, M&T of Buffalo, N.Y., closed the accounts the Interests Section had for deposits of fees for visas, passport processing for Cubans and other consular services March 1, saying it was getting out of the business of handling the accounts of foreign missions.
The Interests Section temporarily suspended most consular services for a few months last year, restarted them and now says it plans to extend the services until March 31.
Since the two sides are using the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to guide the process of renewing ties, Vidal pointed out that it requires a host country to make sure a diplomatic mission has the facilities it needs to do its work.
But Jacobson said that the Vienna Convention might not cover all the questions that could arise because of the “particular and rather peculiar relationship we have had with Cuba in the past.”
The two delegations sat across from each other at long wooden tables separated by a row of red tropical flowers at Havana’s Convention Palace.
Machín emphasized the two sides discussed “practical steps” to get the two embassies operating during the morning session.
“This first round of talks has been a positive and productive dialogue,” Jacobson said. “We discussed in real and concrete terms the required steps for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between our countries.”
Vidal said “Cuba recognizes this will be a long process.”
Despite the decades of hostilities, this week the American and Cuban flags flew side-by-side at some hotels or were draped over the balconies at some homes.
In the past, the relationship was so acrimonious that during the era of President George W. Bush, the U.S. Interests Section, which will become the new U.S. Embassy, installed a ticker on its facade that flashed human rights and democracy messages.
Cuba erected scores of black flags to block the scrolling sign but it went dark after Obama took office. The Cuban government has frequently sent mass mobilizations with tens of thousands of demonstrators along the seaside highway that runs in front of the Interests Section.
Meanwhile, Vidal said there could only be true normalization when the U.S. embargo against the island is no longer in place
The embargo can only be lifted by an act of Congress, but Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday that the former policy of isolating Cuba was “long past its expiration date.”
He said that “this year Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.” But the Cuban-American delegation is vehement and vocal against any such move and it remains to be seen if there are sufficient votes from lawmakers from farm states and others who support lifting the embargo.
In Miami, Republican Cuban-American representatives in Congress — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Díaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo — called for a late afternoon “Vigil for Liberty” in front of the Cuban Monument at Tamiami Park. About 300 people attended.
Ros-Lehtinen said the vigil was intended to “give a voice to those on the island whose voices are repressed by the regime. Human rights and the ability to express one’s self should be inviolate principles — not themes discarded at the negotiating table.”
After the talks, Jacobson visited the Cuban Jewish community and had a meet-and-greet with young ballerinas. On Friday, she planned to continue her outreach to Cuban civil society before leaving on Saturday.