US-Cuba negotiations: What are the next steps for normalizing relations?

Representatives from both the US and Cuba met in Washington Thursday, trying to move the process along.

Desmond Boylan/AP
Cuba's President Raul Castro gestures as he speaks to reporters on the tarmac of the Jose Marti airport after escorting France's President Francois Hollande to his plane in Havana, Cuba, on May 12. Castro said Cuba and the U.S. will name ambassadors to each other’s countries as soon as the island is removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism later this month. Diplomats from both sides met in Washington on Thursday and are optimistic with the state of negotiations.

The United States and Cuba are continuing negotiations to restore full diplomatic relations between the two countries. The two sides appear to be closer than ever to finalizing an agreement as negotiators from both countries met in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, The New York Times reported.

Officials from both sides agree that opening embassies and deploying ambassadors to Havana and Washington will help to speed up normalization of relations, which has lagged somewhat after the surprise announcement from President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro last December. The meetings at the State Department were led by US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, director of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, according to Reuters.

Despite the lag, officials from both sides are optimistic after several rounds of talks in both countries' capitals. 

"I do think we’re closer than we have been in the past, and I think my counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done," an unnamed State Department official told the Times, on the condition of anonymity.

The Cuban team gave an even warmer assessment of the progress of talks.

“We don’t see obstacles but rather issues to resolve and discuss,” Gustavo Machin, a Cuban diplomat who has been part of his country’s delegation for the negotiations, told reporters in Havana before he left for Washington. 

The US and Cuba shuttered their embassies when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic ties on Jan. 3, 1961. In 1977, the two countries opened "interest sections" in both capitals, with no ambassador presiding over the missions. The interest sections are technically administered by the Swiss government.

On April 14 of this year, President Obama notified Congress of his intention to remove Cuba from a list of states that sponsor terrorism. The 45-day review period, during which Congress can try to block the move, will expire next week. If Congress votes to not remove Cuba from the list, President Obama can override the rejection through executive action.

Any plans to open embassies would need to wait for Cuba to be removed from that list.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on the some of the changes that have occurred in Cuba which have led to a resumption of relations.

The designation dates from the cold war era, when Cuba was still promoting leftist regimes and some lingering guerrilla movements across the region – and seeking to undermine the right-wing regimes (or, in the case of Nicaragua, the counterrevolutionaries) the United States supported. But today, democratic systems and elections resulting in governments alternating between left-wing and right-wing political parties are the rule from Mexico to Chile.

And in the case of South America’s last active guerrilla movement – the FARC in Colombia – the Cuban government is hosting peace talks between the guerrillas and the Colombian government ... That would highlight Cuba more as a peacemaker than as a sponsor of terrorism.

One final sticking point en route to opening embassies may be the treatment of diplomats and dissidents. 

Ms. Jacobson reportedly wants assurances from the Cuban government that its citizens could freely visit a US embassy without being harassed by police.

Cuban officials, meanwhile, are concerned about perceived illegal training of Cuban dissidents at the US Interests Section in Havana. The Interests Section offers free courses for Cubans in English, journalism, and information technology, in addition to giving them access to the Internet. 

Jacobson reassured US lawmakers on Wednesday that the State Dept. would not open an embassy unless US officials were granted more freedom of movement around Cuba, according to Reuters. Currently, diplomats are not allowed to leave Havana without permission from the government.

Cuban diplomats are not currently allowed to travel outside Washington and New York. Jacobson also conceded that any US embassy in Cuba would most likely operate similarly to those in other authoritative states like China and Vietnam, where diplomats are also somewhat restricted in their travel.

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