US, Cuba to meet again Monday in Havana on renewing ties

Washington (AFP) - American and Cuban diplomats will meet early next week for a third round of historic talks on restoring diplomatic ties and reopening their embassies, US officials said Friday.

Top US diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, will travel back to Havana on Sunday for the talks between the two old Cold War foes expected to open on Monday and last until mid-week.

Both sides said progress had been made in their last negotiations in Washington on February 27 aimed at restoring diplomatic ties severed for more than half a century, but cautioned that differences remained.

Jacobson will again meet with Cuba's chief negotiator Josefina Vidal in a bid to hammer out remaining issues as both sides eye an upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.

President Barack Obama is to attend the summit, at which Cuba will also participate for the first time.

"The president said recently he still thinks this can be done by April and the Summit of the Americas, so obviously that's something that we still would like and that's what we hope," a senior State Department official said.

Washington and Havana have held two rounds of talks on reopening embassies, but thorny issues remain such as compensation for American property nationalized after the Cuban Revolution, freedom of movement for US diplomats and Cuba's removal from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

The State Department is reviewing whether Cuba can be removed from the terror blacklist "and we will complete that as quickly as we can," the US official said.

"We have always said that that should not be linked to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations or opening of embassies."

The pace of the rapprochement appears to be accelerating, with negotiations continuing on an almost constant basis.

"Since the second round... I think there's been a real seriousness of purpose and continued conversation" between the two heads of the nations' interests section in Havana and Washington, the State Department official told reporters on a conference call.

"There's been more groundwork laid, more progress made," the official said, adding it had therefore made sense to hold a third round of face-to-face talks.

- Overcoming distrust -

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 Cold War 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.

But the official cautioned: "You don't overcome 50 years of policy and distrust in a month, and we've only had a little over that."

Unlike the previous two rounds of talks, Jacobson is also not planning to hold a press conference immediately after next week's negotiations, predicting that there will be no major announcements.

In a sign of remaining tensions with the communist authorities in Havana, Cuba earlier this week rallied behind Venezuela offering its closest ally "unconditional support" after Obama authorized new sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

An official statement published in the island's state-run media called Obama's move "arbitrary and aggressive."

While Washington was "disappointed" with the statement, "it will not have an impact on these conversations moving forward," the US official said.

A flurry of other talks are being held including on aviation links, improving Internet connectivity and human trafficking. The two nations are also due to set a date for their first ever human rights dialogue expected at the end of March.

On Wednesday the Cuban state telecommunications company said the US and Cuba had re-established a direct telephone link in the latest step toward normalizing ties.

Telephone links between the two countries have been interrupted and restored numerous times since the 1960s, but this is the first time the connection has been resumed since 1999.