Sat, Jan 24, 2015 - Page 7 News List

US and Cuba conclude historic talks

LOST IN TRANSLATION?There were clashes over the issue of civil rights, with Cuba questioning the language of the US statement, but significant progress was made


A man walks past an old American car bearing the image of revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana, Cuba, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

The US and Cuba concluded two days of historic talks in Havana with some progress toward restoring diplomatic ties after a half-century of estrangement, but sharp differences over the role of human rights in their new relationship.

“As a central element of our policy, we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression,” Assistant US Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jackson said. Jackson is the most senior US official to visit Cuba in more than three decades. In Spanish, however, her statement said the US “pressured” Cuba on the issue.

“Cuba has never responded to pressure,” Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs US Affairs Director Josefina Vidal responded.

The comments by Jacobson and Vidal reflect the long-standing positions of their governments and it was not immediately clear whether the issue, which has previously blocked closer US-Cuban relations, would pose a threat to the new diplomatic process.

However, it laid bare the pressures each side faces at home. In the US these come from Republican leaders in US Congress and powerful Cuban-American groups. In Cuba, hardliners are deeply concerned that rapprochement could undermine the communist system founded by former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

In the first face-to-face talks since last month’s declaration of detente, the two countries laid out a detailed agenda for re-establishing full diplomatic relations. Further talks were planned.

Jacobson hailed a morning session as “positive and productive,” focusing on the mechanics of converting interest sections into full-fledged embassies headed by ambassadors. However, she also spoke of “profound differences” separating the two governments and said embassies by themselves would not mean normalized ties.

“We have to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust,” Jacobson told reporters.

Along with human rights, Cuba outlined other obstacles in the relationship. Vidal demanded that Cuba be taken off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, she praised US President Barack Obama for easing the US trade embargo and urging Congress to lift it entirely.

“It was a first meeting. This is a process,” Vidal said.

In the next weeks the US and Cuba would schedule a second round of talks, which might or might not be the time to finalize an agreement, Vidal said.

Issues on Thursday’s agenda included ending caps on staff, limits on diplomats’ movements and, in the case of the US building, removing guard posts and other Cuban structures along the perimeter.

Earlier, the two nations disputed whether human rights had even been discussed at all.

Jacobson said the US raised it in the morning meeting; Vidal said it had not come up.

Cuba’s North American affairs deputy chief Gustavo Machin later said the delegations spent time in an afternoon session discussing the US’ human rights problems — a reference to recent police killings of black men in Missouri and New York. Cuban state media said the Cuban delegation also complained about the detention of prisoners at the US base in Guantanamo Bay.

A US official said the difference in Jacobson’s statements was unintentional and that the English version — that the US “pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression” — reflected the delegation’s position.

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