HAVANA TIMES — Negotiators from the United States and Cuba achieved “progress” today in the fourth round of negotiations this year between the two governments, but did not set a date for the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, reported dpa.
US State Dept. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, led the US delegation, while Josefina Vidal, director of US affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Following the two-day session, Jacobson and Vidal, in separate press conferences, both said substantial progress had been made and that their governments are “getting closer” to reaching an agreement for the opening of embassies, five months after the diplomatic thaw between the two countries.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said Jacobson, who explained that though she is “by nature optimistic,” she is also “realistic about the difficulties of this process.”
Jacobson acknowledged that reaching an agreement between Washington and Havana “is no easy task, given the complicated history” including over half a century of severance of diplomatic relations, broken off unilaterally by the US in 1961, and ideological confrontation.
Cuban negotiator Josefina Vidal said that in recent weeks the two sides staff have addressed several different issues, “civil aviation, human trafficking, human rights, immigration fraud, marine protected areas, hydrography and nautical charts and research on marine species.” She said that both governments will soon conduct exchanges on health, in particular in the fight against infectious diseases.
Vidal said the fourth round was held in “a respectful and professional climate” and that talks between the two governments will continue in the coming weeks.
Jacobson said that a fifth round of negotiations may not be necessary, since the issues remaining to open embassies could be resolved in the near future by the respective Interests Sections and the heads of mission of both countries.
“We are getting closer to our goal, but there are still some elements that we have to resolve,” said Vidal.
Both governments have expressed their desire to reach an agreement as soon as possible. Remaining differences involve the future operation of the respective embassies and the freedom of movement of the diplomats.
Washington wants diplomats to travel freely outside Havana to other parts of the island and be able to meet with Cuban citizens, including political dissidents. Havana fears that such activities destabilize the government.
First the Embassies than the Road to Normal Relations
The US and Cuba agree that the opening of embassies will be a first step in a long process for the normalization of bilateral relations, where numerous other thorny issues will come into play.
From the beginning of the negotiations, the government of Raul Castro insisted Washington remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and find a bank to handle the accounts of the Cuban Interests Section. Both obstacles have now been overcome.
On May 29, the US will take Cuba off the “blacklist” it has been on since 1982, a decision that Vidal described as “fair”.
Likewise, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington has finally found a bank in the United States: Stonegate Bank. This will ensure the normal functioning of the Cuban diplomatic mission and allow it to fully resume the consular services it provides.
“Half a century of isolation, confrontation and mistrust make any process of normalization difficult, but the Cuban government now has to remain on the international stage and be accountable for their positions and US policy cannot be used as an excuse for inaction,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of CubaNow, an organization led by young Cuban-Americans.
James Williams, president of the “Engage Cuba” a coalition working for a shift in the stance of the US Congress towards the island, urged the legislators to lift the embargo on Cuba. This coalition helped the Cuban mission to find a bank for its accounts.
In the absence of direct diplomatic relations, Cuba and the United States currently maintain Interests Sections which allows them to provide consular services and keep limited bilateral relations on certain specific issues like migration. Both countries’ staff has, however, serious restrictions on action and movement.