U.S., Cuba begin talks aimed at ending decades-long estrangement


The highest-level U.S. delegation to Cuba in decades has begun two days of negotiations in Havana. Among other things, discussions are focused on re-establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington.


Karen DeYoung and Nick Miroff, The Washington Post


HAVANA.- The United States and Cuba began historic talks here Thursday, aimed at ending more than five decades of official estrangement.


After an early morning arrival at Havana’s Conference Palace, the eight-person delegations sat for cameras at facing tables without comment, across a six-foot divide, before closing the doors on what officials said would be all-day discussions.


Divisions remain over a number of issues, from the ongoing U.S. embargo and extradition of fugitives, to compensation each side believes it is owed for the other’s policies of the last 53 years. What appeared to unite them was a determination to quickly take the first step toward reconciliation by restoring diplomatic relations.


Three hours after the talks began, Gustavo Machin, a senior Cuban diplomat, emerged to report that that outcome was not in doubt, since President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro had already announced last month that ties would be reestablished.


They had already agreed, he said, that relations would be “based on… the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations,” the international treaty that governs the reciprocal privileges and protections of official missions overseas.


Calling the talks “flexible and respectful,” Machin said the two sides had begun exchanging data and proposals on “how to make the decision a reality.”


U.S. and Cuban officials have said that finalizing the decision will likely take several more meetings. But Machin himself was a symbol of how far the two sides already have come. Serving in the Cuban Interests Section in Washington in 2003, he was one of 14 Cuban diplomats expelled on espionage charges.


Despite somewhat stony exteriors as the official sessions began, the delegation heads, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the Americas department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, were said to have made initial progress in breaking the ice at an informal working dinner Wednesday night.


In the streets of Havana this week, Cubans seemed to talk of little else. Delegation arrivals at the conference center were broadcast on live television, as were news conferences Wednesday by Cuban and U.S. officials who held separate talks on migration issues that are scheduled every six months.


In those talks, Cuba complained that the U.S. policy of allowing Cubans to become permanent residents once they set foot on U.S. soil has continued to encourage unsafe, illegal departures by sea. The Cubans also described increasing illegal entry into the United States through third countries, often via human trafficking over the Mexico border or with false documents, and criticized what they said were U.S. attempts to persuade Cuban doctors and other professionals working in third countries as part of Cuba’s foreign aid programs to defect.


Thursday’s normalization talks are to be divided in a morning session of discussion on reopening embassies in Washington and Havana, and an afternoon meeting to discuss other bilateral issues.


Cuba wants the United States to remove it from its list of “state sponsors of terrorists,” a senior Cuban official said Tuesday. While the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said removal was not a precondition for restoring ties, he said it was “inconceivable” that the two nations could have relations if Cuba remains “unfairly on that list.”


Cuba’s presence on the list, along with Sudan, Syria and Iran, has long been an anomaly attributable more to the overall estrangement between the two countries than Cuban actions. While the others are accused of ongoing sponsorship of terrorist acts abroad, Cuba’s sins, according to the annual State Department report on the list, include the presence here for decades of members of ETA, the Spanish Basque militant organization, whose return Spain long ago stopped seeking.


Cuba is also accused of harboring several dozen U.S. fugitives, including Joanne Chesimard, wanted in the 1971 slaying of a New Jersey state trooper.


Obama has ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s listing, which dates to 1982, and recommend a course of action. Assuming he approves Cuba’s removal, he must then transmit his decision to Congress for a 45-day waiting period until it takes effect.


A senior State Department official said the United States would expect normalization “going forward even while there is a waiting period” for formal removal from the list.


The senior Cuban official also said that relations could not be fully normalized until the U.S. trade embargo, initially imposed in 1960, is completely lifted. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to do so, saying that “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.”


But Cuban officials are well aware that any congressional action will take time and is far from assured. Last week, Obama used his executive authority to adjust regulations on the embargo, including an easing of travel and trade restrictions.


As part of the embassy negotiations, U.S. officials want Cuba to lift restrictions on the number of U.S. diplomats here and to ease the heavy security presence around the building that it says intimidates Cubans from visiting.


Obama has said the United States will continue to push Havana on issues of human rights and democracy as it moves toward a new relationship. Jacobson plans to hold a breakfast for Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents Friday before her departure.


The senior Cuban official said his government would also raise its “concerns” about human rights issues in the United States, citing the police controversies in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.


U.S. opponents of normalization, who have charged that Obama has gotten little in return for what they describe as a “gift” to Castro and Cuba’s communist government, called for additional American demands to be immediately put on the table.


In a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said that Jacobson “must prioritize the interests of American citizens and businesses that have suffered at the hands of the Castro regime before providing additional economic and political concessions to a government that remains hostile to U.S. interests.”


Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.


Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.


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