US-Cuba Talks on Restoring Diplomatic Ties End Abruptly
News from Cuba | Wednesday, 18 March 2015
The United States and Cuba have ended their third round of talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations as abruptly as the meeting was announced, with no breakthrough on sticking points and in an atmosphere of rising tension over Venezuela.
A small group of American officials led by Roberta Jacobson, the top United States diplomat for Latin America, arrived in Havana on Sunday and met with Cuban counterparts on Monday. The talks ended without any public comment and despite earlier remarks by senior officials at the State Department who had contemplated an open-ended meeting that could last to midweek.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry released a short statement Tuesday acknowledging the meeting and saying that it had been conducted in a “professional atmosphere.” Talks would continue in the future, it said.
Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, made similar comments in Washington, saying that the discussions had been “positive and constructive” and that progress had been made, but she declined to say on what.
Both sides have been working toward an agreement, anticipating setting a date for reopening embassies before heads of state from the hemisphere gather in Panama April 10-11 for the Summit of the Americas, which both President Obama and President Raúl Castro plan to attend.
Although Mr. Obama has said he hopes the embassies will be established before the summit meeting, Ms. Psaki seemed to back away from that expectation, saying, “I don’t think we set a timeline or a deadline.”
She added, “You obviously have to make progress on these specific issues and get agreement on what needs to be done. Obviously, we’ll continue to work on that.”
The Cuban statement on Tuesday came as Mr. Castro arrived in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, for a meeting of left-leaning nations to show solidarity with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Mr. Maduro has rallied patriotic sentiments in Venezuela after the United States called his country an “extraordinary threat” to national security and imposed new sanctions on several military and law enforcement officials it has accused of violating human rights and democratic due process.
In Cuba, previous rounds of the United States-Cuba talks attracted much attention, but the news media paid scant notice this time and focused on Mr. Castro’s visit to Venezuela, Cuba’s prime economic benefactor and an ally in socialism. They also reported on a letter of support to Mr. Maduro from Fidel Castro denouncing “threats and impositions.”
In a speech later on Tuesday, Raúl Castro used some his strongest anti-American language in months, thrashing Mr. Obama over the sanctions and any suggestion that détente would lead to political change on the island.
“The United States should understand once and for all that it is impossible to seduce or buy Cuba nor intimidate Venezuela,” he said. “Our unity is indestructible.”
Even before the meeting in Havana, State Department officials, who announced the meeting on Friday, had sought to play down expectations, saying it would be a roll-up-the-sleeves working session and would probably not include news media appearances.
The main hurdle for Cuba is its continued presence on the State Department’s list of nations said to support international terrorism. When Mr. Obama announced in December that the United States and Cuba would seek to restore normal relations, he suggested that it did not belong on the list and ordered a review. Cuba has also complained about its inability to find a bank for its diplomatic missions in the United States, in part because of the terrorism designation, which was made in 1982.
Most analysts view the removal of Cuba from the list as an easy call - it long ago renounced support for insurgencies - but the delay in any decision is causing speculation that the administration has not found a way to do it that would withstand a potential challenge from the Republican-controlled Congress.
Even if Mr. Obama were to authorize the removal of Cuba from the list, it would not come off it until after a 45-day grace period during which a joint resolution of the House and Senate could stymie the process. Taking that into consideration, Cuba would not be off the list before the summit meeting, though the administration’s position could be known.
This month, Spain asked the United States to help it get Cuba to extradite two fugitive members of a Basque separatist group. Although a State Department report in 2013 noted the repatriation of several members of the Basque group to Spain, Cuba’s decision to allow some members to stay on the island has been used in part to justify the terrorism-list designation.
Some analysts said it would be premature to judge the progress made by the talks, given that the countries have not had normal relations for decades and that, for now, they continue to meet despite differences over Venezuela and other matters.
“I think they are both playing it close to their vest to not create unrealistic expectations and to not add to people picking apart and second-guessing the progress,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba scholar at Columbia University.