HAVANA (AP) — American hopes of opening an embassy in Havana before presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet at a regional summit this week have been snarled in disputes about Cuba’s presence on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror and U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel and talk to ordinary Cubans without restriction, officials say.
The Summit of the Americas will be the scene of the presidents’ first face-to-face meeting since they announced Dec. 17 that they will re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century of hostility. The Obama administration wanted the embassies reopened before the summit starts in Panama on Friday, boosting a new American policy motivated partly by a sense that isolating Cuba was causing friction with other countries in the region.
Arriving at the summit with a deal to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana would create goodwill for the U.S., particularly after it issued new sanctions on selected Venezuelan officials last month that prompted protests from left-leaning countries around the hemisphere.
Negotiators on both sides said they are confident they will be able to strike a deal to reopen embassies in the coming weeks but not necessarily before the summit.
“It’s not a lot of time, let’s put it that way,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing on Friday when asked whether an agreement on embassies was likely before the gathering in Panama City.
Asked Monday about the latest on the embassies, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that “when you have a country that has essentially been ostracized by the United States for five decades … it’s going to take a little bit of time to re-establish some trust.”
“When you consider the 50-year history between our two countries, three months doesn’t seem very long,” Earnest said, referring to the December announcement.
The U.S. and Cuba have held three rounds of talks about restoring diplomatic relations. Cuba’s main demand is to be removed from the terror list, a Cold War-era designation that isolates it from much of the world financial system because banks fear repercussions from doing business with designated countries. Even Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington has lost its bank in the U.S., forcing it to deal in cash.
Washington has long since stopped accusing Havana of supporting terrorism and Obama made clear in December that he intends to remove Cuba from the list. But U.S. officials said the president must first send Congress a report that says Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months and has assured the United States that it will not support terrorism in the future.
The terror list is a particularly charged issue for Cuba because of the U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.
Officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that the demand for assurances there will be no future terror support has led Cuba to reiterate its own past allegations about U.S. involvement in terrorism against the island, and issue a reciprocal demand that the United States pledge to not support such attacks in the future.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations.