POLITICS

U.S. and Cuban officials cite progress made in talks about restoring diplomatic ties

Roberta S. Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Members, speaks with the media at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. The United States and Cuba claimed progress Friday toward ending a half-century diplomatic freeze, suggesting they could clear some of the biggest obstacles to their new relationship within weeks.  (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Roberta S. Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Members, speaks with the media at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. The United States and Cuba claimed progress Friday toward ending a half-century diplomatic freeze, suggesting they could clear some of the biggest obstacles to their new relationship within weeks. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The United States and Cuba claimed progress Friday toward ending a half-century diplomatic freeze, suggesting they could clear some of the biggest obstacles to their new relationship within weeks.

After Friday's talks in Washington, the second round of U.S.-Cuban discussions in the last month, diplomats of both countries spoke positively about fulfilling the promise made by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro in December to restore embassies in each other's capitals.

The U.S. even held out hope of clinching a deal in time for April's summit of North and South American leaders, which Obama and Castro are expected to attend, however unlikely that appeared.

"We made meaningful progress," Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's senior envoy to Latin America, told reporters, calling the negotiations "open, honest and sometimes challenging, but always respectful."

Her Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal, indicated she received assurances that the U.S. would move on two of the biggest hurdles remaining: Cuba's inclusion on the U.S. state sponsor of terrorism blacklist and its inability to conduct normal banking operations in the United States. She expressed confidence of progress on both priorities "within the following weeks."

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Cuba's 33-year status on the terrorism list appeared the biggest hurdle, with Vidal saying the issue needed to be resolved if the Cold War foes were to improve ties. Washington is reviewing the designation, which stems from Havana's support decades ago for the Basque separatist group ETA and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, Latin America's oldest and strongest rebel group.

The U.S. has yet to make a decision, but all signs point toward Cuba being taken off the list. American officials say they should make their recommendation ahead of the six-month schedule set out by Obama in December. And the administration has supported Cuba's hosting of peace efforts between the FARC and Colombia's government.

At a news conference earlier Friday with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized his government's position that the discussions on re-establishing embassies were technical and distinct from the U.S. legal examination of Cuba's record on terrorism.

"That's one set of fairly normal negotiations with respect to movement of diplomats, access, travel, different things," Kerry told reporters. "The state sponsorship of terrorism designation is a separate process. It is not a negotiation. It is an evaluation that is made under a very strict set of requirements, congressionally mandated, and that has to be pursued separately."

Cuba cannot get off the list immediately. If the State Department recommends removal and Obama sends such a decision to Congress, the communist country would only come off after a 45-day waiting period. That makes it practically impossible for the embassies to be reconstituted in Havana and Washington in time for the Summit of the Americas in Panama, if Cuba sticks to its position.

The likelihood of prolonged talks on normalizing ties has dampened somewhat the excitement generated when Obama and Castro announced they were exchanging imprisoned spies and would chart a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations.

Although the U.S. has eased some trade and travel restrictions, the economic embargo on Cuba remains in force. Cuba still hasn't said whether it will meet America's full demands for unfettered diplomatic access on the island. And the same democracy and human rights concerns that have long hampered the relationship remain.

Both sides are speaking of the embassies as a first step toward bridging the historic divide between countries separated by only 90 miles.

But other efforts are afoot to improve cooperation. Jacobson and Vidal spoke of U.S.-Cuban meetings in the coming weeks on human trafficking, marine conservation, migration, civil aviation, Internet connectivity and the always testy topic of human rights.

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