US, Cuba Begin Historic Talks on Restoring Relations

Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s chief diplomat for U.S. affairs, second from right, and members of her delegation participate in the first day of closed-door talks between Cuba and the U.S., Havana, Jan. 21, 2015.

Two days of talks between the United States and Cuba aimed at ending more than 50 years of Cold War-era hostility begin Wednesday in Havana.

The meetings are taking place one month after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced, on Dec. 17, the two countries were prepared to reestablish formal diplomatic relations.

Wednesday’s opening round will focus on immigration, especially Washington’s long-standing policy of allowing Cubans to stay in the United States once they step foot on American soil.

Thursday’s session will be devoted to diplomatic issues, including the reopening of U.S. and Cuban embassies in the two nation’s capitals.

Both sides are expected to outline longer-term goals as well, including the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba first imposed in 1961, and Washington’s designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

A senior Cuban foreign ministry official cautioned that restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. wouldn’t immediately lead to a full relationship between the Cold War foes.

“Cuba isn’t normalizing relations with the United States. Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States. The normalization of relations is a much longer process and much more complicated process,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The message appeared designed to lower expectations for the two days of meetings.

US delegation

The U.S. delegation will be headed by Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Jacobson’s visit is the first by a senior American diplomat in Cuba in more than three decades. Cuba will be represented by Josefina Vidal, the head of the foreign ministry’s U.S. affairs department.

Obama defended his administration’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba during his annual State of the Union speech before Congress Tuesday, saying it had the “potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere.”

But the Republican-led Co​ngress has denounced the overture toward Cuba, and is unlikely to to lift the embargo against the Communist-led island nation. Obama has the executive authority to restore diplomatic ties but needs the Congress to lift the economic embargo.

Last month’s breakthrough occurred after several months of secret negotiations that also involved the Catholic Church.

The talks led to Havana’s release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross after five years behind bars. Last week, Cuba released 53 political prisoners, followed by the Obama administration easing some travel and trade restrictions.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.

Voice of America, January 21, 2015

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