Cuba-US warming, hopes of opening embassy, held up by fight over Cuba on terror list
Cuba-US warming, hopes of opening embassy, held up by fight over Cuba on
Published April 06, 2015Associated Press
HAVANA – American hopes of opening an embassy in Havana before
presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet at a regional summit this
week have been snarled in disputes about Cuba’s presence on the U.S.
list of state sponsors of terror and U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel
and talk to ordinary Cubans without restriction, officials say.
The Summit of the Americas will be the scene of the presidents’ first
face-to-face meeting since they announced Dec. 17 that they will
re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century of hostility. The
Obama administration wanted the embassies reopened before the summit
starts in Panama on Friday, boosting a new American policy motivated
partly by a sense that isolating Cuba was causing friction with other
countries in the region.
Arriving at the summit with a deal to reopen embassies in Washington and
Havana would create goodwill for the U.S., particularly after it issued
new sanctions on selected Venezuelan officials last month that prompted
protests from left-leaning countries around the hemisphere.
Negotiators on both sides said they are confident they will be able to
strike a deal to reopen embassies in the coming weeks but not
necessarily before the summit.
“It’s not a lot of time, let’s put it that way,” U.S. State Department
spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing on Friday when asked whether an
agreement on embassies was likely before the gathering in Panama City.
The U.S. and Cuba have held three rounds of talks about restoring
diplomatic relations. Cuba’s main demand is to be removed from the
terror list, a Cold War-era designation that isolates it from much of
the world financial system because banks fear repercussions from doing
business with designated countries. Even Cuba’s Interests Section in
Washington has lost its bank in the U.S., forcing it to deal in cash.
Washington has long since stopped accusing Havana of supporting
terrorism and Obama made clear in December that he intends to remove
Cuba from the list. But U.S. officials said the president must first
send Congress a report that says Cuba has not provided any support for
international terrorism during the previous six months and has assured
the United States that it will not support terrorism in the future.
The terror list is a particularly charged issue for Cuba because of the
U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the
island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from
Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban
exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups and both men accused
of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis
Posada Carriles, lives to this day.
Officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that
the demand for assurances there will be no future terror support has led
Cuba to respond with a reciprocal demand that the United States pledge
to not support such attacks in the future. The officials spoke on
condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly
discuss the negotiations.
Despite the delay in reopening the embassies, both sides appear
optimistic they can reach agreement on the terror issue in the near
future. The United States and Cuba still have to resolve a demand by
Washington that its diplomats be allowed to operate like those from any
other country once the U.S. Interests Section in Havana becomes a full
embassy. American diplomats currently must obtain permission from the
Cuban government to travel outside Havana and Cubans must register with
Cuban guards before entering the building, a measure the United States
says is aimed at dissuading dissidents from contacts with U.S. officials.
The officials said it appeared unlikely that Washington would strike
Cuba from the terror list without assurances from Castro’s government
that it will allow the future U.S. embassy to operate with fewer
restrictions, a sensitive issue for Cuba because it would allow more
American contact with dissidents whom the communist government sees as
U.S.-backed mercenaries. Other issues include caps on the number of
diplomats at the embassy and restrictions on U.S. imports of products
ranging from office supplies to household goods.
Cuban insistence on the continued restrictions on freedom of movement by
U.S. diplomats could force the Obama administration into tough decisions
about what limits it is willing to accept in order to have an embassy in
Domestic politics are also fueling U.S. caution in the talks. While
Congress cannot permanently block Cuba’s removal from the list, the
Obama administration will have to defend its decision in public hearings
heading into a presidential campaign season. Republican candidate Ted
Cruz and likely candidate Marco Rubio have family ties to Cuba and
object to normalization with the Castro government.
Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Obama’s head of Western
Hemisphere affairs, said at a forum last week on U.S. business
opportunities in Cuba that the terror review “is in very advanced stages
and we will try to get that done as quickly as possible.”
“One of the reasons that things are taking a while is that we need
certain things to run an embassy,” she added. “That is one of the most
important things in our conversations.”
Asked about the status of the negotiations, the U.S. State Department
said Friday that the review of Cuba’s inclusion on the State Sponsor of
Terrorism list was still under way. A Cuban government spokesman
speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be
quoted by name said that the country had not been asked to make any
public declaration about future support for terrorism. He declined to
comment further on the discussions.
U.S.-Cuba experts hope progress comes quickly.
“I think it would be smart on both sides to show continued momentum, to
demonstrate that the instructions given by the president on Dec. 17 will
be faithfully and promptly carried out by their negotiators,” said
Richard Feinberg, a senior director of the National Security Council’s
Office of Inter-American Affairs under President Bill Clinton.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in
Havana and Bradley Klapper reported from Washington.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
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