A Cuban government official has denied that a recent meeting with U.S. representatives to discuss mutual compensation claims amounts to a negotiation, raising doubts about Havana's willingness to settle the issue anytime soon.
A senior U.S. State Department official who recently briefed journalists on the compensation talks said the two sides held “very substantial discussions” despite the nine months between the first and second meetings.
But the Cuban government's public version of the talks was quite different.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno told a news conference in Havana on Monday that “we are not negotiating yet. … We are now engaged in informational talks.” A transcript of the news conference was published by Cubadebate.
Moreno said the U.S. representatives “have stated the need to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, but … these are going to be extremely complex negotiations from all points of view … and we cannot rush things.”
Jason Poblete, a lawyer who specializes in Cuba claims with PobleteTamargo LLP in Washington D.C., said that although Moreno's statements are typical of negotiations, the discussions “are negotiations, because they're sitting at a table and talking about the issue,” he said, adding that Moreno’s statements point to a decision by Cuba to delay the process.
“These statements show they are not interested in finding a solution, that there is a tactic to delay,” Poblete said. He believes the Cuban government may be waiting to see if the U.S. president elected in November “will offer them something better.” The delays also would maintain the status quo until 2018, when Cuban ruler Raúl Castro has said he will surrender the presidency.
That could be a mistake, said John Kavulich, director of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council: “Cuba will never have a more compliant negotiating partner than it does in the Obama Administration, for whom [improved relations with Havana] … is a visceral component of a legacy construct,” he said.
Moreno's comments in fact could be “an indirect message that they are not interested in solving this issue. I am speculating, but perhaps they want to win the elimination of all sanctions before they pay” compensation, said Poblete.
The State Department official told journalists that the U.S. side seeks $1.9 billion in compensation for Cuba's seizure of properties owned by U.S. citizens in the early 1960s; $2.2 billion of judgments outstanding against Cuba; and a “hundred to a couple hundred millions of dollars” that relate to interests that the U.S. government had in mining on the island.
Cuba seeks nearly $300 billion as compensation for the economic and human damages caused by the U.S. trade embargo and other policies and activities against the Castro governments since 1959.
The State Department official said there is “nothing different in these negotiations from our experience negotiating claims with other countries,” and added that both sides “are committed to trying to resolve this in a mutually satisfactory manner.”
The Cuban official, however, has linked the payment of compensations to the U.S. embargo, which Havana calls a “blockade.”
“The solution to the issue of compensations … is obviously directly linked to the blockade. I believe that all of you understand that the normalization of relations between the two countries will be very difficult, if not impossible, while the blockade against Cuba remains in place,” Moreno declared.
U.S. negotiators have considered the possibility of signing a bilateral agreement with a one-time payment to resolve the issue. But Moreno, asked if the Cuban side would accept such a deal, said the island's claims are not negotiable.
“The claims of the Cuban people were approved by the courts, and claims are not negotiated,” he said. “I can't say, 'Cuba claimed X amount of money — which was approved by the courts — but now we're going to change it to another amount.' No. Those are judicial rulings that must be obeyed by our government officials.”
The two sides ended the second meeting, held in Washington, without agreement on the date for the next meeting. The first meeting, held in Havana, also ended without agreement on the date for the second.
Kavulich said the key challenge for the Cuban government is to recognize that there will be no specific monetary reparations from the U.S. side. because the Cuban claims are so much larger than the U.S,. claims.
“The negotiators will need to ask whether the imagery of seeking what will not be given is more important for the 11.3 million citizens of the Republic of Cuba than removing a significant impediment to … immediate multilateral benefits,” he said.
Poblete agreed: “If the Cubans are interested in having the U.S. sanctions removed, they would pay the claims, which would help the groups in Washington that are pushing for the elimination of sanctions” on Havana, he said.
Kavulich also questioned whether the Obama Administration views the compensation issue as a priority.
“Two meetings in 599 days. No further meetings scheduled, and the Obama Administration ends in 175 days. And this is defined as a high priority of the Obama Administration. The certified claimants have been concerned, and now that concern is magnified,” he said.
“Claimants have not seen the effort they deserve,” Kavulich added. “A legacy is not built by focusing on the relatively easy issues, but on the difficult issues.”