U.S. and Cuba Nearing Deal to Fully Restore Diplomatic Ties

May 21, 2015 by


U.S. and Cuba Nearing Deal to Fully Restore Diplomatic Ties

A poster of Fidel Castro in Havana. The United States and Cuban governments closed their embassies in 1961
in response to a demand from Mr. Castro that the American Embassy staff be drastically reduced.
Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — The United States and Cuba are closer than ever to reaching an agreement to fully restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies, officials in both countries say, as negotiators prepare to meet Thursday in Washington for another round of talks to iron out remaining details and discuss possible dates.

The move toward full diplomatic relations broken decades ago during the Cold War has been seen as a key step toward ending hostilities and normalizing ties with a historic opponent that once agreed to allow Soviet nuclear missiles on its soil and repelled an invasion by American-backed insurgents.

Yet progress toward full diplomatic relations has not gone as swiftly as initially hoped in December, when President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba first committed to restoring ties in a surprise announcement.

A Cuban man on a bicycle taxi with a United States flag in Old Havana. Negotiators will meet Thursday I
n Washington for another round of talks to iron out remaining details to restore diplomatic ties.
Credit Eliana Aponte Tobar for The New York Times

“I’m trying not to sound too Pollyannaish,” said a senior State Department official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about closed-door diplomatic matters. “But I do think we’re closer than we have been in the past, and I think my counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done.

“But equally,” the official added, “we have certain requirements that we need met, so we just have to see whether we can get there in this round of talks. I certainly hope so.”

Gustavo Machin, a top Cuban diplomat who has been part of his country’s delegation at the talks, told reporters in Havana on Monday that “we don’t see obstacles but rather issues to resolve and discuss.”

The governments closed their embassies after President Dwight Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations on Jan. 3, 1961, in response to a demand by Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, that the American Embassy staff be drastically reduced. Mr. Castro called the embassy a spy outpost, part of an American plot to topple the Communist government he installed after the 1959 revolution.

In 1977, during a period of somewhat warmer relations, the two nations agreed to open “interest sections” in their respective capitals, with no ambassadors and limited diplomatic activity, and technically run under the auspices of the Swiss government.

Officials in both Havana and Washington agree that having full-fledged embassies and exchanging ambassadors could accelerate the path to normal relations. While the overall United States trade embargo, begun under Mr. Eisenhower and strengthened under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, remains in place, Mr. Obama has taken several steps to undercut it and increase trade with and travel to Cuba as a way to support the Cuban people and weaken the Castro government’s arguments that the nation’s forced isolation by the United States is the cause of its economic deterioration.

For Cuba, the chief impediments to re-establish normal diplomatic relations have been removed.

With the help of Treasury Department officials, Cuban diplomats have found a bank in the United States willing to handle accounts for their interests section in Washington, which it hopes to elevate to full embassy status but for now handles limited matters like visa processing.

Stonegate, a small Florida bank, has agreed to take the account, but a spokesman said that the bank’s executives would not discuss it. Cuba has been without a bank since 2013, when a Buffalo bank canceled its account, Cuban officials have said, out of concerns about violating Treasury Department restrictions on financial transactions with the country.

Next week, Cuba is expected to officially come off the American government’s list of nations that sponsor international terrorism, after a 45-day review period ends following Mr. Obama’s notification to Congress in April that he was taking the action.

But the United States has yet to receive a commitment from Cuba that United States diplomats would be able to travel freely on the island and speak to whomever they please, something Cuba generally regards as stirring up dissent. And so far, Cuba has not guaranteed that shipments to the American compound would not be tampered with, and that people visiting the United States Embassy would not face harassment from the police guarding it.

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, the top diplomat for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, who is leading the talks for the United States, said, “We have to have an embassy where diplomats can travel and see the country and talk to people.”

At some embassies around the world, she said, diplomats are asked to notify the host country a day or several days in advance of travel but they generally are not confined to one location, as is the case now. Cuban diplomats in the United States cannot travel beyond Washington or New York, and American diplomats in Cuba cannot leave Havana without permission.

Raúl Castro also recently complained to reporters about a program at the American interests section in Havana that trains independent journalists on basics of the trade, calling it “illegal” meddling in a country where the officially sanctioned news media is controlled by the state.

State Department officials defended the program, led by journalism professors from the United States, as routine and offered “around the world,” as one official put it. But the official left open the possibility it or other programs could be modified or abandoned.

“I think the thing that you have to remember is the democracy programs, in their history since I think about 1996 when they began, have changed over time,” the official said. “And they will continue to change over time to reflect a reality, whether that reality is on the ground in Cuba or in the United States.”

Mr. Obama had hoped to have the embassies open before a historic meeting with Mr. Castro at a regional summit session in Panama last month.

Yet the Cubans have approached the new relationship more warily than the United States, even as American visitors flock to the island and American companies look into the possibility of trade deals and other business activity there.

Even scheduling the current round of talks took some time, despite both presidents in Panama reiterating the resolve to have diplomatic relations.

“We were ready to get together right after that meeting with President Castro,” the State Department official said, “and our counterparts weren’t necessarily as quick to be prepared as we were.”


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