USCuba diplomatic meeting in Havana Copyright Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson (R, in orange) and a U.S. delegation sit across from Cuban Foreign Ministry Director for North America Josefina Vidal (L, in white) and other Cuban government officials at the start of diplomatic normalization talks in Havana, Cuba.

Rifts Remain, but US-Cuba Talks Give Rise to Reconciliation Hopes

Both Cuba and the U.S. acknowledge that normalizing relations will be a long and complex endeavor.

Hours into historic U.S.-Cuba talks in Havana, a Cuban official came out to boast about the "relaxed" atmosphere at the meeting between the old Cold War adversaries.

"Look at my face. I think it reflects the spirit in which we are talking at the moment," Gustavo Machin, the Cuban delegation's spokesman, told reporters with a smile under his thick mustache.

It was a stark change from the days of recriminations between communist Cuba and the United States, when Havana slammed "Yankee imperialism" and Washington condemned the Castro regime.

The mere presence of the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the sunbaked Caribbean island since the Cold War marked a turnaround after five decades of glacial relations.

After barely speaking face-to-face since the 1960s, the United States and Cuba took big steps toward normalizing ties, even though the talks highlighted enduring rifts between the nations.

Old disagreements about migration and human rights resurfaced on Wednesday and Thursday. And both sides acknowledged that normalizing relations will be a long and complex endeavor.

We have ... to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust.

— Roberta Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Even after Roberta Jacobson, the top State Department official for Latin America, met with dissidents in Havana on Friday, the Cuban government said the negotiations would continue despite its "big difference" with Washington regarding such critics.

But U.S. officials spoke of "productive" and "positive" discussions, while the Cuban side commended the "constructive" and "respectful" nature of the talks.

While the week's talks did not produce major announcements and no dates were set for the reopening of embassies, analysts said the talks themselves were a big achievement.

"The fact that they were meeting in and of itself is what matters," Ted Piccone, a Latin American expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, told AFP.

"It’s important because it signals that we are in a new era, we are going to have direct talks regarding a whole basket of issues," said Piccone, a foreign policy advisor in former president Bill Clinton's administration.

It was the first get-together since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced in December their intention to normalize ties.

After being estranged all these years, the two sides had lots to talk about, like how to upgrade their "interests sections" into embassies with ambassadors.

Havana, Cuba

Tougher questions came up, with Jacobson pressing Cuba over human rights.

"We have ... to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust," Jacobson said.

The Cuban delegation responded with its own statement accusing the United States of committing a host of human rights abuses.

The Cuban foreign ministry's U.S. affairs director, Josefina Vidal, said her government "has never responded to pressure" but that countries with deep differences "can live together."

She reiterated Havana's demand that Washington tear down an embargo that the regime blames for its economic troubles, but which only the U.S. Congress can end.

What's important for now is to establish diplomatic relations because it has been a big obstacle.

— Jason Marczak, analyst, Atlantic Council think tank

The two sides agreed to hold more talks in the future in order to reopen their embassies, a step that analysts say is important in order to open a regular channel of communication.

The broader goal of normalizing relations will take more time.

"What's important for now is to establish diplomatic relations because it has been a big obstacle," said Jason Marczak, Latin America analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

"With diplomatic relations, we will have an official channel to chat about more important things for both countries," he said.

Vidal said Cuba could not open an embassy in Washington as long as it remains on a blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism. The embargo, she added, has blocked the consulate from accessing banking services for its operations.

Obama has called on Congress to lift the embargo and used his executive powers to ease some travel and trade restrictions. 

He has also given the State Department six months to review whether Cuba should remain on the terror list.

To be removed, Cuba must not have sponsored terror in the past six months and promise to not do it in the future, Piccone said. The Congress then has 45 days to override the decision.

"The process is technically easy," Piccone said. "But politically it will be an opportunity for opponents of the normalization process to say that Cuba is not cooperating."

Jacobson warned that this week's talks were "just a first step" and "many more" meetings are needed.

By Laurent Thomet

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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