Ready for a Cuban embassy in DC? Havana delegation takes first steps.

American officials heading to Havana have fairly modest goals: ending restrictions on the US Interests Section, the first step toward reestablishing mutual embassies.

Lisa Nipp/AP/File
The Cuban Interests Section at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C., seen here in 2003, is set to become a full-fledged embassy, as is the US Interests Section in Havana, Cuba.

American officials head to Havana this week with fairly modest goals of cooperation with the Cuban government, seeking an end to restrictions on the US Interests Section there so that an embassy — and symbol of the two countries' new relationship — can eventually be established.

The migration and normalization talks between the United States and Cuba are the biggest face-to-face meetings since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced their intentions last month to re-establish diplomatic ties. Leading the US delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top US diplomat for Latin America, the most senior American official to visit Cuba in more than three decades.

A senior administration official said the Obama administration has concrete if limited objectives for the discussions Wednesday through Friday. They include American diplomats being reaccredited in Cuba and facing no travel restrictions, no limits on the number of US diplomats in the country, unimpeded shipments to the US mission, and free access for Cubans to the mission. Jacobson will meet Cuban activists and civil society representatives, as well.

How quickly the Cubans meet the requests related to the Interests Section will help determine when the two countries can re-establish embassies, post ambassadors in each other's capitals and restore full diplomatic relations, the official said. Reporters were briefed on this process Monday on the talks on condition the official not be quoted by name.

The US and Cuba haven't had diplomatic relations since 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro seized power. Interests sections were established in the late 1970s to boost cooperation, but never really advanced a detente between the two countries. In the years since, both governments have enforced restrictions on the activity of each other's diplomats in their countries.

But changes have come quickly since December's announcement of a prisoner exchange between the US and Cuba and their promises to end the decades-long estrangement. The Cubans last week released 53 political prisoners. Three days later, the US significantly eased travel and trade rules with Cuba.

Despite opposition by some American lawmakers, particularly Republicans, a US congressional delegation was in Havana Monday to see how they could aid the process. Among their possible meetings was one with President Raul Castro. The delegation is being led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a key appropriator of funds for US foreign operations.

A major question that Leahy and others are gauging is how Castro's government responds to the US expansion of diplomatic and trade ties. It's a question that administration officials also readily acknowledge.

The US wants to accelerate further the level of engagement between the two countries, the senior administration official said. Whereas the US and Cuba found some common ground in recent years on oil spill prevention efforts and counter-narcotics work, Washington wants to explore disease monitoring and law enforcement cooperation.

For decades some of America's most-wanted fugitives have lived unmolested in Cuba, frustrating US efforts to apprehend them. They include Joanne Chesimard, a Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member now known as Assata Shakur, who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper and sentenced to life in prison. She escaped and fled to Cuba.

The official cited no progress yet on efforts to return people whom the US considers to be criminals, but Cuba sees as worthy of political asylum.

Billions of dollars in claims against the Cuban government pose another hurdle. The official suggested some process for settling these claims would have to be created for relations between the US and Cuba to be normalized.

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