to open a new era
By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES — There are unusual images to be seen these days in Havana. US flags flying on balconies in the heart of the Cuban capital, for example, or the arrival of many US visitors and journalists to cover a historic negotiation between the governments of Washington and Havana that opens today.
People are “very excited about the prospect of a change,” said US Congressman Chris Van Hollen, showing a pin with the flags of the United States and Cuba on his jacket, after a three-day visit to the island along with five other US parliamentarians.
After talks on migration issues on Wednesday, Washington and Havana will open a political negotiation on Thursday unthinkable just five weeks ago before US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro made simultaneous announcements that the two countries would restore diplomatic relations after more than half a century break.
“In Cuba we are ending a policy that had long since reached its expiration date. When you do something that doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something different,” reiterated Obama in his annual State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday night.
The high level delegations began meeting today at the Havana Convention Center on the west side of the capital, but it is on Thursday that they are scheduled to begin negotiations to draw up a roadmap to normalize diplomatic ties broken off by the US in 1961.
The discussions on Wednesday will focus on mechanisms to regulate Cuban migration to the US and to combat human trafficking, one of the few bilateral contacts both countries have held, with some interruptions, since the 90s.
The US negotiating team is led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, and Cuba’s by Josefina Vidal, director for US affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.
“We hope to establish civilized relations between the two countries, which have deep differences and different perspectives on various issues,” said a Cuban official on Tuesday regarding the expectations of Havana.
“Cuba repeats its willingness to continue holding a respectful dialogue with the US government, (…) without undermining national independence and the self-determination of the Cuban people,” said the foreign ministry official, who requested anonymity when speaking on the positions that the government of Raul Castro will bring to the negotiations table.
The Cuban president said in December that his country would not give up its one-party communist system in its rapprochement with the United States.
The restoration of diplomatic ties is a “long and complex process,” also warned the Cuban official.
Both countries must open respective embassies in Washington and Havana after a negotiation process. After Thursday’s talks, Jacobson is scheduled to give a press conference in Havana on Friday. Havana Times will be present.
The reconciliation with Cuba faces an uphill battle in the US Congress as many of the majority Republicans oppose the change in US policy towards the neighboring island nation.
Although Obama approved several measures that soften the US embargo imposed on Cuba for over five decades, only Congress can formally lift the restrictions, which have the force of law.
The executive measures, which took effect on January 16, provide greater opportunities for US citizens to travel to Cuba and American companies to sell technology and do some business with the island.
In his State of the Union address, Obama once again defended the new approach as the end of a failed policy of decades of isolation. The surprise move has been applauded almost unanimously in the region.
“Our change in policy toward Cuba has the potential to wipe out a legacy of distrust in our hemisphere, remove false excuses for restrictions in Cuba, defend democratic values and extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” said the president before Congress.