US, Cuba seek to reopen embassies in historic talks
HAVANA - Agence France-Presse
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta S. Jacobson (R) arrives at the Convention Palace in Havana to participate in the second day of closed-door talks between Cuba and the United State, on January 22, 2015. AFP PhotoCuban officials sat down Jan. 22 with the highest-level US delegation to visit Havana in 35 years for landmark talks on reopening embassies and thawing long frozen ties.
US assistant secretary of state Roberta Jacobson, the most senior US official on the communist-ruled island since 1980, led the American delegation as the Cold War-era rivals opened a second day of meetings.
Cuba was represented by the director of the foreign ministry's US affairs department, Josefina Vidal, at the capital's Convention Center.
The two sides claimed a good first day on Wednesday despite persistent disagreements over US migration policies, which Havana says encourages Cubans to flee to nearby Florida.
US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro surprised the world in December when they simultaneously announced plans to normalize relations following months of secret negotiations.
The raising of the US and Cuban flags in each other's capitals would send powerful signals of the new era the two nations want to enter, though no timeline has been given for the reopening of embassies.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Wednesday that the two sides still have much to negotiate before they can normalize ties frozen since 1961.
"When it is timely, when it is appropriate, I'll look forward to traveling to Cuba in order to formally open an embassy and begin to move forward," Kerry said in Washington.
Cuban officials have also downplayed expectations of major breakthroughs this week, stressing that normalizing ties will be a long and complex process.
After Jacobson had a working dinner with Cuban counterparts on Wednesday night, the two sides will negotiate how to turn their "interests sections" into fully functioning embassies with ambassadors in Washington and Havana.
The US mission to Cuba, a concrete and glass building along the capital's picturesque seawall, has been a symbol of the countries' animosity since it opened in 1977.
Across the main entrance, the Cuban government built a vast esplanade to hold anti-US rallies.
In 2006, then president Fidel Castro ordered 138 flagpoles erected to block a giant display screen the mission was using to convey political messages.
Now, Washington wants Havana to reaccredit its diplomats; end travel restrictions for them within the island; ease shipments to the US mission; and lift a cap on US personnel.
For its part, the Cuban delegation has voiced "deep concerns" over the situation of the interests section in Washington, saying the US embargo has left its consulate without banking services for almost a year.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, an international affairs professor at New York University, said the talks are important to build trust as they seek new relations in the coming years.
"Although Havana and Washington differ in the objective that they seek in the long term, today they are in the same bed. It doesn't matter that they have different dreams," he said.
Lingering differences were on display on Wednesday, as Cuban and US officials remained at odds over US policies that give Cubans who reach US soil quick access to permanent residency.
But the two sides came out positive after Wednesday's first day of talks, welcoming the meeting as productive while vowing to meet again.
Obama urged the Congress on Tuesday to end the decades-long embargo against Cuba, which the Castro regime has blamed for the country's economic woes.
The dissident community on the island of 11 million has had a mixed reaction, praising Obama while voicing concern that too much was conceded to the regime.
In Washington, some Cuban-American lawmakers have criticized Obama, saying the administration had given up too much without securing human rights commitments.
"As the administration pursues further engagement with Cuba, I urge you to link the pace of changes in US policy to reciprocal action from the Castro regime," Senator Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat, said in a letter to Kerry.
A US official said human rights will be on the table, saying it was "very important to us."