US could reopen embassy in Cuba within weeks

Jo Biddle

Washington (AFP) - The United States and Cuba said they made progress Friday in talks on restoring diplomatic ties and Washington could reopen its Havana embassy before a key April summit if differences are overcome.

After a second round of historic meetings, negotiators from both countries appeared optimistic about the road ahead, but cautioned there were still outstanding issues to resolve in order to restore diplomatic ties frozen for half a century.

"Today was productive and encouraging. In open, honest and sometimes challenging...conversation we addressed the requirements of each side and the differences we identified in our first discussion in Havana a month ago," said top US diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson.

"And we made meaningful progress in resolving them," she said, cautioning that "serious disagreements remain."

The head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal, at a press conference at the State Department, also said she believed progress had been made.

But she renewed a call for Havana to be removed from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and urged that provisions be found to enable Cuba's interests section in Washington to have access to the US banking system.

Vidal stressed that while it was "not a precondition" that Havana be removed from the blacklist in order to restore diplomatic relations, it should happen before ties can be renewed.

"It would be very difficult to explain that Cuba and the United States have established normal diplomatic relations when Cuba is kept on this list that we believe we have never belonged to," she said.

Secretary of State John Kerry earlier rebuffed communist Cuba's demand to have the designation -- in place since 1982 -- lifted immediately, saying the current review would run its course.

"The state-sponsored terrorism designation is a separate process, it is not a negotiation," Kerry said.

"And that evaluation will be made appropriately and nothing will be done with respect to the list until the evaluation is completed."

Friday's talks were only the second between the Cold War foes since President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro surprised the world in December with their decision to restore ties after more than a half century of enmity.

The hope is that within the coming months both nations will agree to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals and appoint full-fledged ambassadors.

- Permanent contact -

An initial round of talks in Havana last month -- the highest level since US-Cuban relations were severed in 1961 -- broke the ice but ended with little sign of a breakthrough.

Obama is due to attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11, which Cuba will also be at for the first time.

"I do think that we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas," Jacobson said, when asked if the embassies could be reopened by then, but she stressed much depended on whether "we can get things done in time."

Washington has insisted that its diplomats and embassy be granted full powers under the Vienna Convention to operate freely, including meeting with Cuban dissidents.

Although no new date for the next round of talks has been set, Vidal said the two delegations had promised to be in "permanent" contact.

Jacobson revealed that more diplomatic exchanges were planned -- including a first US-Cuba human rights dialogue, due to be held sometime in late March.

Next week two separate Cuban teams will visit Washington to discuss human trafficking and civil aviation, and then early next month a US delegation will travel to Havana to work on greater Internet connectivity "to better support access to information for the Cuban people."

Obama has called on the US Congress to lift the decades-old biting economic embargo of Cuba.

But some lawmakers -- as well as parts of the Cuban dissident community -- remain wary of the diplomatic demarche, arguing Obama has failed to secure guarantees about progress on human rights on the island.