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

Jan. 24, 2015
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.

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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