Cuba and US open historic talks in Havana

AFP , Wednesday 21 Jan 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Cuba's President Raul Castro (R) (Photo: Reuters)

The United States and Cuba opened two days of historic talks in Havana on Wednesday to end decades of Cold War-era animosity and reestablish diplomatic relations.

The meetings in Havana follow the historic decision by US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro in December to seek normal diplomatic relations.

US deputy assistant secretary of state Alex Lee and Cuban foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal sat down for the first day of closed-door talks in the capital's Convention Center, which will focus on migration issues.

Their opening remarks were not broadcast.

The reopening of mutual embassies, closed since relations broke in 1961, will be at the center of Thursday's talks, which will be led on the US side by Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Jacobson will be the highest-ranking American official to visit the communist island since 1980 when she lands later Wednesday.

On the eve of the talks, US President Barack Obama urged the Congress to end the decades-long embargo against Cuba, which the Castro regime has blamed for the country's economic woes.

"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date," Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech late Tuesday.

"When what you have done doesn't work for fifty years. It's time to try something new," he said.

An unnamed senior Cuban foreign ministry official told local media: "We hope to establish civilized relations between countries that have different political concepts, but which can get along while respecting these differences."

The migration talks will tackle an issue that has vexed both nations for years, with Cubans regularly hopping on rickety boats to reach Florida, 145 kilometers (90 miles) away.

But a US official downplayed expectations of agreements on Wednesday.

"I wouldn't look for any specific deliverables," the official told AFP. "This is part of ongoing consultations (on migration)."

The Cuban foreign ministry official said Havana will express its concerns about a US policy that gives Cubans quick access to permanent residency when they set foot on US soil.

The United States has seen a surge of Cuban migrants who apparently fear that the US-Cuba negotiations will end the "wet foot, dry foot policy," in which they are deported if caught at sea but can stay in the United States if they come ashore. The number of sea intercepts doubled in December compared to the previous year.

But a senior US official said this week that there were "no plans to change US policy," which must be modified by Congress.

For Thursday's embassy talks, the US side wants Cuba to reaccredit its diplomats, lift travel restrictions for them within the island, ease shipments to the US mission and lift a cap on personnel.

Both nations currently have "interests sections" in each other's capitals.

While US and Cuban officials prepared to meet, a Russian spy ship docked in Havana in a less than stealthy visit that had not been previously announced.

Ordinary Cubans hope the rapprochement will improve their lives in a country where supermarket shelves often lack basic goods and people make $20 a month on average.

"Things could change for the better, giving us a little more than what we normally have in the material and spiritual sense," said Dayron Herrera, 27, an artist who was drawing Old Havana while sitting on a street near the capital's Cathedral.

The island's dissident community has had a mixed reaction, thanking Obama for his attempt to improve their country while voicing concern that too much was conceded to the Castro regime without getting much in return.

In the US Congress, some lawmakers have criticized Obama's decision, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, saying it was "enriching a tyrant and his regime."

The two countries have already taken steps to thaw their once glacial relations.

The Cuban government completed this month the release of 53 political prisoners demanded by Washington.

Days later, the US Treasury Department eased travel and trade restrictions, though the US Congress has final word on lifting the embargo, which prevents US tourism.

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