U.S.-Cuba Relations Could Advance in Panama

A woman walks under a Cuban flag in Santiago de Cuba.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

According to media reports, a high-profile delegation from the United States will attend the inauguration of Panamanian President-elect Juan Carlos Varela on July 1. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Ambassador to Panama Jonathan Farrar and Massachusetts state Gov. Deval Patrick will attend. Although political delegations to presidential inaugurations are routine, the likely presence of a Cuban delegation at the event provides the opportunity for contact between Cuban and U.S. diplomats. The inclusion of a high-ranking official like Kerry suggests that substantive talks between Cuba and the United States may occur at the event. Such talks would almost certainly discuss the political negotiations with Cuba proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The likelihood of such interaction has increased since the United States made clear its intention to explore the possibility of improving political relations with Cuba. The United States indirectly reached out to Havana through Uruguayan President Jose Mujica earlier in June. Mujica delivered a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro at the G-77+China conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. In the letter, President Obama offered to hold a dialogue with Cuba to discuss the economic embargo on the island, as well as the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross. Gross is a U.S. citizen who has been held in Cuba since December 2009 on suspicion of subversive activities.

A meeting between the U.S. delegation and any Cuban officials at the inauguration would imply that both sides are willing to discuss the issues presented in Obama’s letter. Havana, however, has been reluctant to begin serious discussions on the issue. Cuba’s reticence is likely due to the pace of ongoing economic and political reforms on the island, which have progressed slowly over the past four years. Cuba’s reluctance also derives from its consistent demand for Washington to remove its embargo. The potential for a favorable outcome for the island in this regard could spur Cuba toward further negotiations.

For now, a meeting in Panama City would indicate advances in preliminary moves toward a negotiation between Washington and Havana. The potential release of Gross would likely be an initial point of discussion in any formal dialogue. Obama has already shown his desire to discuss the release of Gross, and talks on that issue would indicate that the Cubans are open to expanding the dialogue into other areas. Even if meetings occur in Panama, progress toward full negotiations will take time. Aside from any residual political animosity between the two countries, there are several practical matters to resolve before any barriers can be lifted. Cuba has been clear from the start that it wants a paced, orderly transition in the event of a change to the status quo.

–Instituto de Seguridad, Defensa y Estudios Internacionales (ISDEI)

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