Thursday, February 26, 2015

U.S.-Cuba talks head to Washington

U.S.-Cuba talks head to Washington
02/25/2015 5:30 PM 02/25/2015 10:59 PM

The second round of U.S.-Cuba talks, which will be held Friday at the
massive limestone Department of State building in a wintery Washington,
D.C., is expected to be a nuts-and-bolts negotiating session to restore
diplomatic ties between the two nations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta
Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, who heads the Cuban Foreign Relations
Ministry's U.S. division, will lead their respective delegations as they
did in Havana during the first round of talks on Jan. 22.

During that historic closed-door meeting aimed at ending a 53-year
hiatus in diplomatic relations between the two neighbors, both sides
laid out their positions and it was clear there were differences.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Wednesday this round of
conversations will be devoted entirely to matters related to opening
embassies — unlike the Havana talks, which also included discussions
about human rights and areas of mutual cooperation such as the fight
against Ebola, environmental protection and combating human and
narcotics trafficking.

While the Havana talks were "historic," the official said Friday's talks
"may seem a bit disappointingly workman-like."

The U.S. side is hopeful that renewal of diplomatic ties and reopening
of embassies could take place before the April 10-11 Summit of the
Americas in Panama, but the State Department official added, "I'm not
sure" there's enough time.

Among the topics the U.S. delegation wants to discuss are ensuring the
ability of its diplomats to travel freely throughout the island,
unfettered access by Cubans to the future embassy and unimpeded
deliveries to it.

During the Havana talks, Vidal said the banking problem at Cuba's
missions in Washington and at the United Nations would have to be
resolved before embassies could be opened. For the past year, no bank
has wanted to handle Cuba's accounts, putting the missions on a
cash-only basis.

The United States has been trying to help Cuba find a banker but so far
there are no takers.

The State Department official said a Cuban embassy could open and
continue to operate on a cash basis, but added, "That is really
uncomfortable for them and frankly unsafe. They can [have an embassy
without a bank] but all of us would rather they didn't have to do this."

One reason U.S. banks are so hesitant to bank with Cuba is that the
country remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a
status that makes banks wary they could run afoul of U.S. law if they do
business with sanctioned countries. An expedited review of Cuba's status
on the list is underway.

The talks are part of a new direction in U.S.-Cuba relations announced
on Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. As
part of the new policy, Obama also chipped away at the embargo with
measures allowing trade with Cuba's emerging private sector, more travel
by Americans and an opening for the U.S. telecom industry to do business
in Cuba if Havana chooses to engage.

Meanwhile, the rapprochement is continuing on other fronts.

The State Department's Office of International Communications and
Information Policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, for
example, hopes to meet soon with their Cuban counterparts to see what
will be possible in terms of a telecom opening, said Assistant Secretary
of State Charles Rivkin.

The new U.S. policy allows U.S companies to sell personal communications
equipment in Cuba as well as work on projects to improve Cuba's outdated
telecommunications system.

Cuba also has proposed having a separate dialogue on human rights with
the United States, which the U.S. delegation has accepted — although
Jacobson has conceded the two sides' ideas about how such a dialogue
should be structured are probably quite different.

While these topics won't be discussed Friday, it's possible that dates
will be set for various dialogues.

Earlier this week, New York Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on
the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said talking directly with Cuban
officials is important.

Engel, who accompanied House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on a recent
trip to Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said the delegation
raised the issue of human rights at every meeting they had with Cuban

"I believe the ball is now in the Cuban government's court to respond by
ending the harassment of political activists and releasing political
prisoners," Engel said. "For our policies to continue to change, it's
going to take give and take on both sides, and frankly I'd like to see
some more changes on the Cuban side, and I said that in Havana."

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has been critical of the
Congressional delegation, saying members had sent "worrying signals to
the regime that human rights are, in fact, negotiable."

But in general, Engel said "average people that we met on the street
were all very, very positive" about the rapprochement.

South Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, elected to Congress in
2014, was hardly as sanguine. "It is quite an insult that on the week
commemorating the anniversary of the shoot-down, the State Department
will roll out the red carpet to Cuban officials who represent the
murderous regime that killed" four Brothers to the Rescue pilots,
Curbelo said in a statement. Tuesday marked the 19th anniversary of the
day Cuban MiGs shot down two civilian planes from Miami as they neared
Cuban territory.

Meanwhile, two bills have been introduced in Congress to lift the
embargo and further expand Cuba travel for Americans, but
anti-rapprochement forces in Congress, including the Cuban-American
delegation, want to roll back the opening toward Cuba.

Getting the two embassies open is just the opening salvo in the much
more difficult task of normalizing relations between two countries that
have been on hostile terms for much of the past half century.

"An embassy will be opened in the next few months, but this is perhaps
one of the easier topics of negotiation that the two countries will
face," said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's
Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. "The Cuban government needs to
maintain its anti-U.S. posture for domestic and international
credibility, so expect it to maintain a tough position at any negotiations."

Raúl Castro has said before any normalization in the relationship, the
five-decades old embargo against Cuba would have to be lifted, the
United States would have to return the Naval base at Guantánamo Bay,
there would need to be compensation for the "human and economic damage"
caused by the embargo and transmissions of Radio and TV Martí would have
to end.

Where: U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.

Delegations: Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Roberta Jacobson heads the U.S. delegation; Josefina Vidal, the Cuban
Foreign Ministry's chief of its U.S. division, heads the Cuban side.

Focus: Matters related to opening embassies in both countries.

Next round of talks: No date set. 'We will keep working until we get
this done,' said a senior U.S. State Department official.

Source: U.S.-Cuba talks head to Washington | Miami Herald Miami Herald -

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