Jacobson: Much riding on efforts to restore relations with Cuba

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson talks with the Miami Herald Editorial Board Saturday Jan. 24, 2015 after returning from Cuba.
Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson talks with the Miami Herald Editorial Board Saturday Jan. 24, 2015 after returning from Cuba. El Nuevo Herald

Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. negotiator at normalization talks with Cuba, said Saturday that she’s optimistic about the process but doesn’t want to raise expectations too high.

“Building people’s hopes [too high] around a process, which I have enormous confidence in, but which will take a long time, that is the true normalization of relations and change, is something I think we need to be careful of,” said Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “I think we need to be very optimistic but very realistic at the same time.”

Jacobson sat down with the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald on Saturday afternoon on her way back to Washington from Cuba where she led U.S. delegates in talks aimed at restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and opening embassies in each country. Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee, who led migration talks with Cuba on Wednesday, also visited the newspapers’ main newsroom in Doral.

“As a first trip, this was incredibly important and very productive,” Jacobson said. “It was getting things out on the table. We have a lot of work to do in the future. We made a start but it was just a start.”

The talks on Thursday “revealed differences we have — all I think which we knew about — but they’re abstract until you sit down and have the conversations,” she said.

The U.S. delegation invited the Cuban side to Washington for the next round of talks — a meeting that Jacobson said she expects to take place “in the next couple of weeks.”

She said the reaction she got from everyday people during her trip reminded her of the importance of the talks.

“For me, what affected me most during the talks and made me understand what a big deal this was were the people in the United States, including here in Miami, or in Cuba who wanted to tell me ‘good luck, we’re so happy you’re doing this, we’re so grateful. our wishes and hopes go with you.....’”

In Miami, a Cuban-American baggage handler told her it was an honor to wrap her suitcase in plastic. In Havana, technicians and others stopped her in the hallways and asked to take pictures with her because they wanted to share the historic moment with their families.

“I felt very moved by that, but I also felt a huge responsibility,” Jacobson said. “It means so much more to them than I realized and I felt you don’t want to let them down.”

In Cuba, after the talks concluded, she held a breakfast for a group of dissidents, met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, visited blogger Yoani Sánchez at the newsroom of her independent news service 14ymedio, took part in a reception for a large group of dissidents and activists Friday night and visited Cuban cuentapropistas who are running their own small businesses.

“The contact I had with people was profound,” Jacobson said, even if she didn’t see huge numbers of people because of her tight schedule.

Jacobson’s message to Cuban dissidents was that they shouldn’t feel abandoned by the shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba and that the United States wants to “continue to engage with them.”

During Thursday’s talks, the Cuban delegation invited the U.S. side to a future dialogue on human rights. They want to talk about the U.S. human rights record while the United States is concerned with lack of civil liberties in Cuba and the treatment of political prisoners.

“I told them we were delighted to accept” their offer of a human rights dialogue, said Jacobson. She acknowledged, however, that not only do the Cubans have a different conception of human rights but also of “what such a human rights dialogue might look like.

Human rights “is the area of the most profound disagreement,” she said.

Jacobson said she was encouraged that during Friday’s reception for dissidents there were more diplomats from other embassies than who usually attend such democratic, civil society events at the U.S. Interests Section. That may indicate, she said, that there could be more opportunities to work with U.S. counterparts and allies who weren’t previously focused on civil society in Cuba.

During the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, both President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro will be in attendance. Jacobson said it is also essential that there be Cuban participation in the civil society and private sector portions of the Summit.

As part of his Dec. 17 announcement that Cuba and the United States would be renewing diplomatic relations, Obama also said the United States would allow the import and export of products to and from Cuba’s nascent self-employed sector.

That news really unleashed a “sense of possibility” among Cuban cuentapropistas, Jacobson said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” she said, “that they all see themselves as playing a critical role in expanding opportunities for Cubans, an important role in bringing greater prosperity to a Cuba which is in very serious economic trouble, and, yes, demonstrating a different way of prosperity than a state-centered model.”

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