US, Cuba begin talks to restore diplomatic ties

US President Barack Obama shakes Cuba's President Raúl Castro's hand at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in 2013. (Twitter)

US President Barack Obama shakes Cuba's President Raúl Castro's hand at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in 2013. (Twitter)

The highest-level US delegation to Cuba in 35 years began talks on Wednesday aimed at restoring diplomatic relations and eventually opening up full trade and travel ties between two adversaries locked in Cold War-era hostilities.

The two days of meetings are the first since US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on December 17 that they had reached a breakthrough after 18 months of secret negotiations.

Obama has set the US 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 on Tuesday.

He 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 US citizens whose property was nationalised after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and US fugitives who have been given asylum in Cuba.

“After five decades of authoritarian, one-party rule, we must recognise that the Castros will never relax their iron-fisted control over Cuba unless compelled to do so,” Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and Cuban-American, said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

“As the administration pursues further engagement with Cuba, I urge you to link the pace of changes in US policy to reciprocal action from the Castro regime.”

Talks were to focus on immigration issues on Wednesday and turn to restoring diplomatic ties on Thursday.

Both sides are expected to outline longer-term goals.

While Cuba will seek the repeal of the economic embargo and ask to be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, the US government will press the one-party state for greater human rights.

Anticipating that the US delegation will raise human rights issues, a senior Cuban foreign ministry official told reporters on Tuesday that Havana had concerns about human rights in the US, citing the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in New York and Ferguson, Missouri.

Cuba has also said it will protest against US laws that welcome Cubans into the US once they set foot on US soil, a policy exception that Cuba says promotes people trafficking and dangerous journeys across the Florida Straits on flimsy vessels.

Obama has the executive authority to restore diplomatic ties and lift sanctions, but needs the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal the economic embargo.

The senior Cuban foreign ministry official drew a distinction between restoring diplomatic ties and the broader issue of normalising relations.

“Cuba isn’t normalising relations with the United States.
Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States. The normalisation of relations is a much longer process and much more complicated process,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US delegation is led by Roberta Jacobson, the top US diplomat for Latin America and the first US assistant secretary of state to visit Cuba in 38 years. A US official of similar rank visited Cuba 35 years ago.

Cuba’s team is led by Josefina Vidal, its chief diplomat for US affairs. – Reuters