HAVANA (AP) – After a euphoric month that left Americans dreaming of holidays in Havana and Cubans imagining U.S. products at their corner stores, the first real effort at forging a new era was sobering: Much bitter disagreement still stands in the way of normal relations.
Negotiations between seasoned Cuban diplomats and the highest-level U.S. delegation to visit the island in 35 years failed to produce a single significant agreement — beyond the need for more talks. As Roberta Jacobson, America's top diplomat for Latin America, told reporters, "It's very hard to say how exactly this will work."
The two days of discussions were hyped, starting hours after President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address that the new engagement effort had "the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere" and provided "new hope for the future in Cuba."
Yet by Friday it appeared negotiators hadn't even advanced Obama's most basic objective: restoring diplomatic ties between the U.S. and President Raúl Castro's government, with full-fledged embassies in each other's capitals.
On Thursday, Jacobson called re-establishing diplomatic relations a "relatively straightforward process." A day later, her Cuban counterpart suggested a central U.S. demand of unrestricted travel for U.S. diplomats was already being snarled in one of the most contentious points of the long-fraught U.S.-Cuban relationship — Washington's support for dissidents the Cuban government sees as mercenaries seeking to undermine the communist system.
Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top diplomat for the United States, said in an interview with The Associated Press that U.S. support for dissidents is "action that isn't acceptable for Cuba, and they know it."
Asked whether Cuba would allow U.S. diplomats to go where they want, she said, "for Cuba, this consideration is associated with better behavior."
At its most fundamental level, the U.S.-Cuba divide comes down to separate visions of where closer ties should lead.
Jacobson said the U.S. goal is a Cuba that is "free and democratic." Vidal outlined an entirely different idea — that of two states with deep differences but no economic or diplomatic restrictions, like the relationship the U.S. enjoys with China.
"I don't see why it is that difficult to have relations with Cuba," Vidal said.
This disconnect surfaced several times this week.
At one point, the U.S. and Cuba disagreed on whether human rights even had been discussed. When Cuban officials acknowledged the subject was broached, they stressed their desire to help ameliorate human rights problems in the U.S., from police killings of black men to Guantanamo Bay detentions.
Jacobson on Friday reinforced the U.S. call for greater political freedom in Cuba, something Cuban-American leaders and rights advocates fear has been overshadowed in the push for detente. She met a group of dissidents in the morning and then spoke to influential Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.
Human rights, Jacobson said, are the "center" of U.S. policy in Cuba. But she didn't say Cuba must improve its human rights record to have a better relationship with the U.S.
Republican leaders in Congress take a different view and hold the power to end America's 54-year economic embargo of Cuba — the communist government's biggest desire.
Asked whether Cuba might at least examine how to expand freedoms to help the Obama administration with Congress, Vidal said, "Absolutely no."
"Change in Cuba isn't negotiable."
Throughout the talks, both sides stressed that the road ahead would be long, the differences on some issues profound.
Cuba last week freed 53 political prisoners whose release the U.S. demanded, but that was hardly mentioned. The Americans spoke of their action last week to ease travel and trade rules with the island with new regulations that both sides seemed to be still trying to make sense of.
Asked about one of the most potentially far-reaching U.S. changes, permission for U.S. telecommunications exports to Cuba, Jacobson wasn't able to predict how American companies or the Cuban government might respond.
Cuba has notoriously poor cellular phone and Internet infrastructure and hasn't said whether it even wants to increase its citizens' access to outside information. But to take advantage of the more lenient telecoms and other U.S. rules, it will need access to U.S. credit — something the government attributes to the embargo.
On other obstacles to warmer relations the two sides only began work this week. Each wants the other to return fugitives accused of grave crimes. There is also the question of the billions of dollars in claims against Cuba's government dating back to Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
Another of Cuba's key concerns is getting off a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a relic of the government's support for left-wing rebellions in Latin America and elsewhere during the Cold War. American officials are sympathetic to the demand yet are bound by process. The current review of Cuba's status could take several more months.