HAVANA — Cuban President Raúl Castro said Tuesday that his country and the United States would name ambassadors after Cuba is removed from Washington’s blacklist of “terrorism sponsors” at the end of this month, the clearest sign yet that the two nations remain on track to renew diplomatic ties.
Speaking to reporters at Havana’s international airport at the conclusion of a state visit by French President François Hollande, Castro said that talks between the two governments were “going well” but that Cuba would move “at our own pace” toward restoring formal relations severed more than a half-century ago.
Negotiations began in January but have been slowed by Cuba’s insistence that its removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism is necessary to create an “appropriate context” for renewed relations.
“This sort of unjust accusation is about to be lifted,” Castro said Tuesday, “and then we’ll be able to name ambassadors.”
Last month, President Obama ordered Cuba to be cleared from the terrorism list, triggering a 45-day waiting period during which Congress can propose legislation blocking the move.
That period expires May 29. Opponents of Obama’s Cuba detente have conceded that they do not have the votes to stop him.
Cuban negotiators are due to arrive in Washington as soon as this week for a fourth round of talks, meaning Secretary of State John F. Kerry could to travel to Havana as early as next month to hoist an American flag over the 1950s-era U.S. diplomatic compound along the city’s fabled seaside boulevard, the Malecon. The building has served as the U.S. Interests Section, under protection of the Swiss government, since 1977.
Two sticking points still need to be smoothed out first: U.S. diplomats insist they must be allowed to bring secure shipping containers into the country, in accordance with global diplomatic protocols. They also want the ability to travel freely on the island without seeking Cuban government permission beforehand.
U.S. diplomats in Havana, and Cuban diplomats at their country’s Interests Section in Washington, are prohibited from traveling beyond the two capitals without government permission.
Obama administration officials say they have no problem with Cuban diplomats traveling at will in the United States, but Cuba has said restrictions are necessary because of years of active American support, much of it clandestine, for opponents of Cuba’s one-party communist system.
In his comments Tuesday, Castro warned against U.S. diplomats engaging in “illegal” activity, but the Obama administration has said it will continue backing Cuban dissidents and pro-democracy activists.
“We have expressed quite often in public and in private the concerns that we have with the Cuban government and the frequency with which they trample on the basic universal human rights of their people,” press secretary Josh Earnest said at a White House briefing Tuesday.
“The president feels strongly that by changing our policy, by seeking greater engagement not just between the Cuban government and the American government, but between the Cuban people and the American people, that we can continue to support the Cuban people as they seek the kind of government that respects their rights and allows them to fulfill their ambitions,” he said.
Earnest said he did not know who might be on Obama’s list of potential candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador in Havana since Washington broke off relations in 1961.
Castro’s comments on the negotiations with the United States came as he bid farewell to Hollande, the first sitting French president to visit the island.
During his 24-hour stop in Cuba, Hollande also went to the home of Fidel Castro for an encounter with the 88-year-old former ruler. The French president said he found the aging revolutionary “deteriorated” physically but otherwise alert and conversant.
Hollande, of France’s Socialist Party, did not meet with Cuban dissidents during the trip, but he said France would be Cuba’s “faithful ally” as the country attempts to liberalize its state-run economy. He was joined by a large delegation of French business executives.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.