The Obama administration plans to proceed on forging diplomatic ties with Cuba – and potentially opening an embassy -- regardless of whether the country stays on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
A senior State Department official made clear Monday that the status of the terror listing will have no impact on the diplomatic push. In a conference call with reporters, the official said the issues are proceeding on separate tracks – on one, Secretary of State John Kerry has launched a six-month review of Cuba’s terror sponsor designation; on the other, U.S. officials head to Havana this week to start talks on normalizing ties.
The distinction underscores that little stands in the way of a U.S.-Cuba détente, after Cuba released 53 political prisoners as part of the deal – though Havana sparked renewed concerns after re-arresting, and then releasing, some of them.
The two-track approach also opens the possibility of the U.S. normalizing relations with a country on the list of state sponsors of terrorism – something of a diplomatic rarity. The other countries currently on that list are Syria, Sudan and Iran.
The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. The Obama administration tried to re-engage Syria early on, but U.S. Embassy operations in Damascus have been suspended since 2012, with the Czech Republic government acting as an intermediary.
The U.S. does have an embassy in Sudan, though there currently is no ambassador – instead, the U.S. maintains a chargés d'affaires.
The senior State Department official said Monday the team reviewing Cuba’s status expects to have a decision on whether Cuba should remain on the terror sponsor list before the U.S. and Cuba move ahead with pursuing embassies. Underscoring that the matters are separate, the official even stated that a determination that Cuba should remain on the list would not deter the Obama administration from proceeding with the president’s diplomatic plans.
The official spoke as Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, prepares to lead a U.S. delegation that will meet with Cuban officials in Havana this week to kick off the normalization process.
The first day of talks on Wednesday will be given over to migration issues, as has been the practice since the U.S.-Cuba migration talks began in 1995. The second day will focus on normalization, with an eye, chiefly, on the two countries satisfying the terms of the Vienna conventions that govern the credentialing of diplomats and the opening of embassies.
The U.S. wants American diplomats to be reaccredited in Cuba and face no travel restrictions. The U.S. also wants no limits on the number of U.S. diplomats in the country, unimpeded shipments to the U.S. mission and free access for Cubans to the mission. Jacobson will meet Cuban activists and civil society representatives, as well.
The third day will feature an English-Spanish news conference by Jacobson, to be held at the residence of the chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section.
The migration and normalization talks between the United States and Cuba are the biggest face-to-face meetings since Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced their intentions last month to re-establish diplomatic ties.
How quickly the Cubans meet the requests related to the Interests Section will help determine when the two countries can re-establish embassies, post ambassadors in each other's capitals and restore full diplomatic relations, the official said.
The U.S. and Cuba haven't had diplomatic relations since 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro seized power. Interests sections were established in the late 1970s to boost cooperation, but never really advanced a detente between the two countries. In the years since, both governments have enforced restrictions on the activity of each other's diplomats in their countries.
But changes have come quickly since December's announcement of a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Cuba and their promises to end the decades-long estrangement. Most recently, the U.S. significantly eased travel and trade rules with Cuba.
Despite opposition by some American lawmakers, particularly Republicans, a U.S. congressional delegation was in Havana Monday to see how they could aid the process. Among their possible meetings was one with President Raul Castro. The delegation is being led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a key appropriator of funds for U.S. foreign operations.
Meanwhile, for decades some of America's most-wanted fugitives have lived free in Cuba, frustrating U.S. efforts to apprehend them. They include Joanne Chesimard, a Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member now known as Assata Shakur, who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper and sentenced to life in prison. She escaped and fled to Cuba.
The State Department official cited no progress yet on efforts to return people whom the U.S. considers to be criminals, but Cuba sees as worthy of political asylum.
The official said the U.S. “still would like [Chesimard] returned,” and that the case remains “a high priority for us.”
Fox News’ James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.