Cuba-US talks: a Cuban perspective
Josefina Vidal, is the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s top diplomat for North American affairs and has been leading the Cuban delegation in talks with the US. After the press briefing following the third round of talks in Washington on 21-22 May she gave this hour long interview to Cuban reporters
What are the main accomplishments of the last few months?
What we have done over the last five months, for two countries which have not had diplomatic relations for more than 50 years, can be considered progress.
In fact, given the results which you yourselves have seen, which have been obtained gradually since the beginning of these conversations in January, the advances have been palpable. When we began in Cuba, in January, the range of topics we were discussing was much broader.
During two rounds, in January and February, we were talking about the issues of removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the necessity of resolving the Interest Section’s banking situation. Today, we can say that these two issues have been resolved, or are close to resolution.
Beginning this week, our interests office in Washington has banking services and, at the end of this week, the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism will finally take place, which I understand will become effective when the decision is published in the Federal Register, early next week.
Thus, two of the issues we were debating over a certain period of time, have now been overcome.
There are other things which we must continue to discuss. Since the first round, we have been talking about other issues which are related to the application and observance of the Vienna Convention. I am referring, in particular, to the behaviour, the conduct of diplomats, but also to the functioning of a diplomatic mission.
At the same time, we have been simultaneously discussing the functioning of an embassy per se. We are now at the point of exchanging views on the next ideas and aspects which have been pending, related to the functioning.
Why has a certain amount of aggressive, anti-Cuba rhetoric persisted?
Changing the rhetoric is something that takes its time: profiling, polishing, modifying. It truly amazes me at times to see, every now and then, that at the statement level, on the level of official statements which are made, some officials use phrases that remind us of where we came from, of the policy which is still in place, but which must supposedly change as part of the process of normalisation of relations.
It seemed strange to me, at the closing of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama, to hear President Obama, during his press conference, say that the purpose of US policy, in the case of Cuba, was not regime change.
Therefore, we hope that as we advance in the process toward normalisation of relations, we will see a better match between this type of statement and real life.
Real life tells us that they are still requesting multi-million dollar funding to sustain these types of programmes which Cuba considers illegal, since they are programmes directed toward provoking change within our country, and which, at the same time, are being attempted without any sort of consent from authorities or the Cuban government.
Is money continuing to flow for these anti-Cuba plans?
Congress, for its part, continues to approve significant amounts of money in response to requests from the government. In fact, we already know that for the fiscal year 2016, which begins in October of this year, being requested are some 20 million dollars, the same figure established by the current administration. We have taken note of these statements which are being made, and I have heard over the last week on two occasions, by Roberta Jacobson referring to the possibility of this type of program being reviewed or adapted to the new circumstances.
Thus, we are truly expecting that this will be addressed, as part of this process, and that we might see a better match between what is said and what is done. It will be very important for us to ascertain that we are truly seeing a change in US policy toward Cuba.
After three rounds, how is the climate within the talks?
I should acknowledge that, for some time now, even before these rounds focused on issues related to re-establishing relations and opening embassies, there has been a much greater level of professional communication, as compared to previous periods. And I must say that this has been maintained in the meetings.
In the meetings, the interaction, the exchanges, are respectful, they are professional. I have not really noted this type of expression on the rhetorical level that perhaps we have yet to see. I believe it must be recognised as such. I don’t think it can be any other way. We have arrived at this point, after the 17 December announcements, precisely because we are treating each other as equals, on a foundation of respect and total reciprocity.
This does not mean that there are no differences. There are. On some issues, the differences are deep. It couldn’t be any other way, but we are talking and we have learned to talk about the differences with respect, which was something lacking for over 50 years, during the moments we were able to have the opportunity for official interaction.
What is the significance of these rounds of talks?
The Presidents made a decision which only they have the authority to make, a political decision to move toward re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies for the first time in 54 years. But now that needs to be put into practice, and therefore discussions are required, based on the principles of the United Nations Charter, and the Vienna Convention. All of these aspects must be reviewed.
We must talk about the number of people, what kind of staff. Because embassies have different categories, they have diplomatic officials, they have technical-administrative staff… All of this must be discussed. What type of rank are these officials going to have, once relations are re-established? What privileges and immunities will they have?
See how many things we have to talk about! How are the embassies going to work? How are we going to exchange documents to take steps toward formalising and re-establishing the embassies? At what point are we going to communicate to the Swiss government - which has been representing us in the respective capitals – as to the termination of our agreement with Switzerland?
Perhaps there are people who think that this can be done more rapidly. I believe that the intention of both parties has been to move rapidly. In fact, I repeat, the impression I have is that, in four months, every time we have met, we have advanced a bit farther toward this objective, which we must reach to concretise the political decision made by our Presidents.
How are the parallel technical meetings progressing?
I think they are progressing in an appropriate manner. These types of conversations at the technical level to address issues of mutual concern, did not begin in January of this year, when we met for the first time to discuss the re-establishment of relations and the opening of embassies, but rather about two years ago.
What has happened since January is that these have been energised, in the areas we were already addressing, and in other new arenas which are now being opened up.
I believe they are progressing in an adequate manner; each one is taking a different path, and at the same time advancing in parallel, each with its own dynamic.
The number of issues Cuba and the United States are discussing is significant, as are others which potentially we know could begin soon… to definitively work on issues of mutual benefit for Cuba, for the United States, for the people of Cuba and the United States, for the region, because many of these extend beyond the bilateral relationship, and some could even have an impact on a world level.
Specifically how are the talks on health and adherence to the law advancing?
The topic we have identified, to begin talks in the area of health - which I believe can be boundless given the experiences and developments of each of our countries in this sector - is that of infectious disease. I believe it is a very timely issue, as a result of globalisation, climate change, all that we know.
Cuba has tremendous experience in the area of prevention and in combating and in confronting these diseases once they have appeared. What we have done in Cuba, and we have applied and helped in other countries of the world.
The United States has similar experiences as well, has a high level of scientific development, and also its own experience facing some of these diseases here, and in other places around the world.
I believe it is a very timely topic, very current, to begin this conversation which should occur in the month of June.
We are going to begin talking, as well, about an issue of much importance, especially now, which is the application of, and adherence to the law. And why do I say it is of much importance now? As a result of the decision to increase travel and exchanges between Cuban and the United States, there is greater movement of people between the two countries and problems appear. Unfortunately crimes are committed, and we do not have the mechanisms established between the two countries to combat this jointly.
In fact, Cuba and the United States have this type of collaboration in judicial matters, and in the application of the law, with many, many countries.
Neither the United States nor Cuba is interested in the proliferation of these crimes, and much less crimes of a trans-national character, given the concerns they can generate and citizen security problems in our two countries, but also for the national security of both countries. It is therefore a very important topic.
We have not yet begun, setting a date is still pending, but we have already reached the conclusion that this is an area we must address, and something which could be beneficial for both countries.
Once relations have been re-established, how will a dialogue on normalisation be undertaken?
In Cuba, we have identified a preliminary list which, once we conclude this first phase, we must begin to discuss with the purpose of advancing toward normalisation of relations.
For our part, we have presented the issues you are aware of – a preliminary list. It could be that as the discussion develops, others may emerge. The lifting of the blockade; the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base; an end to illegal broadcasts by Radio and Televisión Martí, which in addition to violating Cuba’s sovereignty, violate norms and regulations of the International Telecommunications Union. Of course, there is the end to these programs which were originally conceived to promote regime change – as they are called here in the US – which in our lexicon are subversive programmes to promote changes in our country, and foment destabilising situations within Cuba.
Of course, the Cuban side has talked about compensation for our country and our people for the damages caused by US policy over 50 years.
The United States has announced at least one of the issues they are interested in discussing during the second phase: compensation for the properties which were nationalised in Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution.
Thus, we already have at least a range of well-defined issues to start. We must be realistic. We must know what we are talking about, and what is important is the willingness to begin to participate in this kind of discussion.
We have not defined how we are going to do it; if a mechanism will be created; if commissions, groups will be created; if we address everything as a whole or each issue separately - none of this.
Will there be another round on the re-establishment of relations?
No one should think that we only talk when we see each other in these meetings. Between each one, we maintain fluid communication via the head of our Interest Section in Washington and the head of the US interest Section in Havana.
In this way, we have exchanged ideas, presented opinions, positions, points of view. In principle, this is what we will continue doing over the coming days and weeks. As we move forward with this communication, we will reach the conclusion as to whether we can resolve (the remaining issues) in this manner, or if a new round of talks is needed.