After a year of U.S.-Cuba relations: Budding friends or frenemies?

Josefina Vidal, the Cuban negotiator on many of the important meetings in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, says Cuba will never lower its guard when it comes to the United States but the two countries’ new relationship offers opportunities to advance on problems that have long separated them.

Vidal’s remarks were published in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, on Wednesday — the first anniversary of the resumption of U.S.-Cuba relations after a break that stretched for 54 years.

Meanwhile in Washington, a senior State Department official offered U.S. commentary on the year since respective embassies reopened and diplomatic ties were revived: “In spite of our differences with the Cuban government, our engagement policy is working. We’ve made significant progress since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations a year ago.”

Though there have been many milestones — such as President Barack Obama’s March trip to the island — daunting issues remain since July 20, 2015 when diplomatic relations resumed. They include the embargo, claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations, differences over human rights, migration, return of fugitives from justice, and Cuban demands for reparations for damages from the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.

Vidal, who heads the U.S. Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and is a long-time observer of all things American, said the past year has brought important political and diplomatic advances in the relationship with the United States.

She noted that since the rapprochement began, the United States and Cuba have signed 10 agreements in areas of mutual interest plus the agreement to reestablish diplomatic ties. The two countries are in the process of negotiating others.

In contrast, she said, between the Triumph of the Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959 and Dec. 17, 2014 when Havana and Washington made the surprise announcement that they would work toward normalizing relations, only seven bilateral agreements were signed.

“There’s still much more to be done,” said Vidal, adding that there is a lot more Obama also could do through executive authority to chip away at the embargo.

The State Department official said the administration will continue to look at whether any further actions might be taken but “as President Obama stated in his visit to Havana in March we’re close to approaching the end of what can be done based on executive authority.”

Officials from both the United States and Cuba have indicated that the series of meetings they’ve had on various topics, including migration and counter-narcotics cooperation, have helped them get to know each other better.

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But the Cubans are still wary.

The long-standing U.S. objective has been to dominate Cuba and policies from the “past era of hostility and confrontation still remain,” Vidal said. “We are not naive. We know what the strategic objective of the U.S. is and we will not lower our guard. We are always alert.”

Some analysts wonder if the two countries will end up friends or frenemies.

Peter Hakim, president emeritus and senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue, said some observers have asked if what is going on between the two countries is a reconciliation or a friendly divorce. He called it an “imperfect analogy” but said it is possible that with the lower hostilities and each side no longer such an irritant to each other, they will drift off to do their own things.

The diplomats in Washington and Havana did agree on one point in their separate commentaries: normalization isn’t and won’t be easy.

“The process toward normalization of relations with the United States will be long and complex,” Vidal said. “But we’re going to persist as we always have.”

“Normalization is a long-term process,” said the senior State Department official. “Human rights, property claims, and the return of fugitives from U.S. justice are complex and thorny issues but we’re making slow and steady progress.”

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