Friday, May 22, 2015

Obama would ‘relish’ opportunity to visit Cuba, spokesman says

Obama would 'relish' opportunity to visit Cuba, spokesman says

U.S. and Cuban negotiators talked for several hours on Thursday before
deciding to continue the talks Friday, perhaps an indication that the
two sides are nearing the finish line on renewing diplomatic relations
and opening embassies.

In its Twitter feed, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said that advances had been
made, and almost a dozen journalists from major media in Cuba were in
Washington to cover the talks, another indication that expectations were

The Cuban journalists attended the White House daily briefing on
Thursday, and a reporter from Cuban National Television asked about the
possibility of seeing President Barack Obama in Havana before 2016.

"I know that he would relish the opportunity to visit the island of
Cuba, and Havana in particular," said Josh Earnest, White House press

"I think both presidents are operating against a clock. They want to get
this done and the negotiators are working through the issues," said
Julia Sweig, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas Austin.
She briefed the Cuban journalists earlier in the week.

Seated around a U-shaped table, U.S. and Cuban negotiators began their
fourth round of talks shortly after 9 a.m. and concluded for the day
around 5:30 p.m.

Delegations led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western
Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the
Cuban Foreign Ministry's U.S. division, smiled but didn't speak with
reporters as they settled into the negotiating room.

The talks are part of a shift in Cuba policy outlined Dec. 17 by
President Barack Obama, who said that more than a half century of
isolating Cuba wasn't working, and that the best way to bring about
change on the island was through engagement and support of the Cuban people.

Going into the talks, Cuba said progress on two key issues — the pending
removal of Cuba from the United States' list of state sponsors of
terrorism and getting a bank to handle the accounts for its diplomatic
missions in Washington and at the United Nations — had created a
favorable atmosphere for progress.

Since March 2104, the missions haven't had a bank and have had to
operate on a money order and cash basis for everything from receiving
visa and passport fees to paying bills.

Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank confirmed Thursday that it had agreed
to begin handling accounts for the Cuban Interests Section and its
employees at the request of the State Department.

"The adoption of banking services will ease the burden on the Cuban
Interests Section in terms of issuing travel visas and other functions
associated with any embassy in Washington, D.C.," said David Seleski,
Stonegate's president and chief executive.

"We hope this is the initial step to normalize banking ties between the
two countries, which will benefit American companies wanting to do
business in Cuba as well as the Cuban people."

Stonegate, which says its goal is to be the "private bank for business,"
has $2.2 billion in assets and 21 Florida branches.

"I'm sure it was selected because of the large number of Cuban travel
operators and cruise lines in this town," said Andy Gomez, a Miami Cuba

Some travel operators were relieved that a new bank had been selected.

"It most definitely will make life easier," said Vivian Mannerud, the
owner of Airline Brokers, which provides travel services to Cuba. "The
bank should be applauded for stepping up to the plate and everyone who
does business with Cuba should open an account. It's going to alleviate
everyone's business tenfold."

Cruise lines sailing from South Florida have expressed interest in
offering Cuban itineraries once the embargo is lifted. Recently, the
United States issued licenses for ferry service between Florida and Cuba.

Cuba is set to come off the terrorism list at the end of May after
notification is published in the Federal Register. As long as it has
remained there, banks have been wary of handling Cuban accounts because
of possible regulatory penalties related to sanctioned countries.

In 1982, Cuba was added to the list for its role in helping Marxist
insurgencies around the Americas. Iran, Sudan and Syria also are on the

For the United States, key issues in this round were the ability of U.S.
diplomats to freely travel across Cuba and talk to dissidents and
democracy activists, and guarantees of non-interference with shipments
to a future embassy and with visiting Cuban citizens.

They must now go through a checkpoint manned by Cuban guards, which the
United States believes may deter some visits.

In response to another question from the Cuban journalist at the White
House briefing, Earnest said: "We would welcome the opportunity for U.S.
diplomats … to engage more freely with the Cuban people, including Cuban
citizens living outside of Havana." He said that included Cubans who
"may not be a part of or even supportive of the Cuban government."

"We continue to have significant concerns about the way that the Cuban
government all too often fails to respect the basic universal human
rights that we hold so dear in this country. There are too many Cuban
political activists, Cuban journalists who see their freedom of speech,
their freedom of assembly, their freedom of expression trampled by the
Cuban government."

Going into these talks, the United States and Cuba didn't even agree on
which round of negotiations was taking place. The United States referred
to Thursday's negotiations as the fourth round. For Cuba, it was the
third round of talks with a March 16 visit to Havana by Jacobson counted
as a follow-up rather than a full-fledged round of negotiations.

A contingent of Cuban journalists was in Washington for the talks and
they worked out of a press center set up for them at the Cuban Interests

The first round of the historic conversations was held Jan. 22 in Havana.

South Florida Republicans in Congress continued to voice objections to
the talks.

"No matter how much the administration wants to spin these talks as
'progress,' the irrefutable fact is that the Cuban people are no better
off today than the day before Obama's announcement," said Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

"Negotiating with a tyrannical regime or opening an embassy may make for
big headlines but it does not advance the cause of freedom nor help the
Cuban people exercise their basic human rights."

On Wednesday, the anniversary of Cuba's independence from Spain, Miami
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart faulted the Obama administration for
making too many concessions to the Cubans during the negotiations
without getting more assurances on human rights.

"Despite President Obama's countless and shameful concessions to the
Castro regime, the American people and the Congress continue to stand
with them," Diaz-Balart said. "Cuba has the worst human rights record in
our hemisphere and has done nothing to earn the many concessions that
the Obama administration continues to provide the regime."

But during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier
this week, Jacobson said that the new approach on Cuba is already
starting to provide "space for other nations in the hemisphere and
around the world to focus on promoting respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms in Cuba and elsewhere in the region."

"More Americans are traveling to the island, getting past the rhetoric,
meeting Cubans and building shared understanding between our people,"
she said.

"With Congress' lock on the embargo, diplomatic relations grows in
importance as the number of doable achievements on the administration's
checklist shrinks," said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic
Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. "If successful, U.S.
negotiator and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson will be in the
crosshairs of the small but vocal group of skeptics in the U.S. Congress
that believe — no matter what — that Cuba will get far more out of the
deal than the United States."

Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Republicans, have vowed that
they won't even let an ambassadorial nominee for a U.S. embassy in Cuba
come up for a vote. Obama could make a recess appointment this summer,
which would avoid a procedural filibuster in the Senate.

"Eventually, it will have to come back to the Senate," said Gomez. The
recess appointment is only valid for the current session of Congress.

Source: Obama would 'relish' opportunity to visit Cuba, spokesman says |
Miami Herald Miami Herald -

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