This past week, the United States held its first high-level diplomatic talks with Cuba since 1961. It was the first meeting in Havana since the momentous decision by US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro in December 2014 to seek normal ties after 50 years of embargoes and hostilities.
The talks aimed at restoring diplomatic relations and eventually opening up full trade and travel ties between the two countries. Obama has set the United States on a path toward removing economic sanctions and a 53-year-old trade embargo against the communist-ruled island. ““We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new,” he told Congress in his annual State of the Union address.
He also urged Congress to start work on ending the embargo but critics at home say Obama first needs to win concessions from Cuba’s communist government on political prisoners and democratic rights, the claims of U.S. citizens whose property was nationalized after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and U.S. fugitives who have been given asylum in Cuba.
Future talks will focus on immigration issues and restoring diplomatic ties. Obama has the executive authority to restore diplomatic ties and lift sanctions but needs the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal the economic embargo. The teams of the US State Department’s Western Hemisphere chief and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director of US relations also discussed the issue of human rights and fundamental liberties, such as freedom of speech and association.
A senior Cuban foreign ministry official drew a distinction between restoring diplomatic ties and the broader issue of normalizing relations. “Cuba isn’t normalizing relations with the United States. Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States. The normalization of relations is a much longer process and much more complicated process,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. delegation is led by Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America and the first U.S. assistant secretary of state to visit Cuba in 38 years.
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