Cubans Appear More Relaxed in Smooth U.S. Talks
Karl Vick @karl_vick Jan. 24, 2015
The visit of the most senior U.S. official to Cuba in 38 years was a
HAVANA — The visit of the most senior U.S. official to Cuba in 38 years
gave every appearance of doing what it aimed to, drawing the nominal
enemies into a distinctly Caribbean embrace, complete with broad smiles,
warm body language and actual language commodious enough that everyone
could fit together for a group photo.
It was a simple dance, but required coordinated footwork, which both
parties appeared to have practiced in private. The good feeling on
display appeared to be partly genuine and partly a concerted effort to
maintain the momentum that surged up suddenly on Dec. 19, the day
President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneously announced
their intention to end a half century of what one U.S. diplomat termed
"diplomatic estrangement" and, finally, re-establish formal ties. As
formal talks proceed toward making the changes that the Cubans and Obama
are free to make on their own—such as re-opening embassies in one
another's capitals, a primary topic in Havana on Thursday—officials of
both governments privately acknowledge a secondary, over-arching
intention. That would be to aim to sustain if not further swell the wave
of public enthusiasm, leaving the U.S. Congress scant alternative but to
repeal the 1960 Cuba Embargo Act that barred almost all exports to the
emerging communist state.
Which made for some peculiar sights at the colorless Havana convention
center where the delegations spent most of Wednesday and Thursday.
Scores if not hundreds of journalists had gathered in the Hotel Pabco
waiting for something that has never happened in any previous U.S.-Cuba
talks: a press briefing. Longtime Cuba watchers were gobsmacked by the
spectacle of a room crowded with video cameras and reporters' laptops.
On the sidelines, senior Cuban officials smiled sheepishly. This was
after all the land of the Central Committee communiqué, not to say
diktats. "Usually," said one senior official, "we don't have a culture
of informing the press."
And yet, they proved pretty good at it—better than the Americans, on
this day at least. Havana put forward youthful Josefina Vidal, head of
the U.S. Division in the Foreign Ministry, and though she was never less
than correct, she was also warm and apparently at ease. She spoke first
in Spanish, then in English. The English was more direct: "It was a
first meeting," she said at one point, cutting what could have been four
paragraphs into one. "This is a process. So we just made a list of
things we have to do, when."
By contrast, the top U.S. diplomat stood stock-still before the cameras,
answered questions in detail, but betrayed not the merest hint she was
happy to be here. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric
Affairs Roberta Jacobson appeared to recognize her most dangerous
audience was the anti-Castro Lobby that for five decades had blocked the
kind of rapprochement of which she has been made the face. It was as if
she had the sense that the merest smile line would create traction for
naysayers watching from Capitol Hill, calling it evidence democracy had
The Cubans acknowledged the peculiarity of their side appearing more
transparent than the Americans, but also signaled they understood why.
The official offered an explanation on the relative powers of the U.S.
system of government so often lost on Americans: "The power in the U.S.
is not with the president," the senior official observed. "It's with a
class. Don't be fooled."
And so, let the momentum go forward, from Havana to Miami and up the
seaboard to Washington. After the Dec. 19 joint stunner, both
governments moved with unusual dispatch—exchanging prisoners, papers,
and statements of good will. President Obama took only a few days to
re-write regulations that now allow Americans to fly to Havana without
Washington's permission—no great rush evident quite yet, but demand is
clearly there—and opened previously closed gateways to electronics and
other goods. "That's what he's allowed to do," the senior Cuban official
observed. Another executive action, Cuba's place on the State
Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism, is already under review.
At the same time, in a sop to the Miami lobby, the American delegation
conspicuously made good on Obama's vow to continue to harp on Havana's
human rights record. On Friday morning, Jacobson had seven Cuban
dissidents to breakfast at the splendid tropic compound that will once
again be the ambassador's residence if Washington and Havana
re-establish formal diplomatic ties—the move perhaps most easily
accomplished, despite the nations' complex history. Prominent in the
sculpted garden of the dining room was a broad wooden American Eagle
said to be salvaged from the USS Maine, the destruction of which became
the casus belli for the Spanish-American War.
The attention to human rights clearly irks the Cubans, who blame their
government's paranoia on a long and colorful history of U.S.
intelligence operations aimed at bringing it down. But like both sides,
they appear prepared to file the dispute under "profound disagreements"
that can be addressed from embassies at least as well as Interests
Sections, the cumbersome arrangement through which Cuban and American
diplomats operate now in each other's capitals, beneath the protection
of the Swiss. No timetables were offered, but the next round, perhaps in
DC, may address technical matters.
For the moment, the focus remains on keeping things clicking along
toward a kind of "normality." At a news conference at the residence on
Friday, after the breakfast with dissidents, Jacobson thawed a good deal
answering a question on the Embargo Act, projecting sympathy if not
empathy for anyone trying to square Obama's executive changes with
persistent existence of that legislation.
But the Cubans have patience. ""It's a good sign," said one other senior
official, smiling wryly. "We have nothing to lose."
Source: Cubans Appear More Relaxed in Smooth U.S. Talks | TIME -