HAVANA — The Cuban and American delegations sat at parallel tables, eight wary diplomats on each side, facing each other across a distance of about six feet and a gulf filled with more than a half-century of grievances.
In separate news conferences afterward, at the end of their first round of talks Thursday, both sides pronounced it “productive,” respectful and positive.
But both acknowledged that “profound differences” remain.
“What you have to recognize,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said after the initial session, “is that we have . . . to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust.”
Josefina Vidal, Jacobson’s counterpart at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, stressed the importance of approaching each other on the basis of “equal sovereignty” and “avoiding any interference in [each other’s] internal affairs.”
Like Jacobson, Vidal stressed that reopening embassies that were closed in 1961 was just the first step in a complicated process of normalizing relations.
Even that will require further negotiation. For example, Vidal said, “it would be very difficult to explain that there has been a resumption of diplomatic relations . . . while our country unjustly continues to be included on the [U.S.] list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
The sober descriptions of what still divides the two governments deflated some of the enthusiasm for rapid change that has been building on both sides. But the delegations said they would set an early date for another meeting and were committed to the public pledge made by President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro last month to restore diplomatic relations and then begin to tackle other areas of discord.
If body language and ease of public presentation was any guide, Vidal, clearly on her own turf, seemed far more forthcoming than Jacobson in addressing the dozens of U.S. journalists who have traveled to Cuba to cover the talks along with other international news media. She took more questions than Jacobson and translated her own Spanish into fluent English.
But her remarks were also more specific on areas of discord, including what subjects they discussed.
After the morning session, Jacobson said she had raised the issue; Vidal said it did not come up.
During a second session in the afternoon, the talks moved away from the embassies to areas of current and future cooperation, including counter-narcotics, law enforcement, the environment and international health issues.
But in a statement distributed in Spanish after the talks ended at 7 p.m., the U.S. side said it had “pressured” Cuba on issues of human rights and free expression. In a solo evening news conference, Vidal said the word “pressure” was not spoken in the afternoon session. “That’s not a word used in these kinds of communications,” she said, and “Cuba has a long history of not responding to pressure.”
Vidal said that Cuba had some concerns of its own about human rights in the United States and had renewed a proposal it made a year ago for a separate dialogue in which each country could express its views on the subject.
U.S. officials later said they had erred in using the Spanish verb “presionar,” meaning to pressure, in the statement. The English version said that “we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression and assembly.”
Vidal also said that Cuba was still studying the new trade and travel rules the Obama administration announced last week, particularly those opening the door for U.S. telecommunication companies to do business in Cuba. Havana, she said, was “willing to . . . explore possibilities of doing business [with them] that would benefit both sides.”
After the Thursday morning meeting on embassies, Vidal said that a complete lifting of the 1960 U.S. embargo was “essential” for further normalization but that Cuba recognizes “the willingness of the U.S. president to have a serious and honest debate” with Congress about it taking action to lift the embargo.
But the terrorism list is a different story. Obama has the power to remove Cuba from the list if he determines that Havana has not engaged in terrorism in the recent past and is unlikely to do so in the future. He has asked the State Department to review Cuba’s status and provide a recommendation.
Its presence since 1982 on the list, which includes Iran, Sudan and Syria, is more than a significant irritant to Cuba. Based on an uptick of Obama administration penalties imposed on foreign banks whose business with Cuba has passed through U.S. financial institutions — a practice banned for all on the list — Buffalo-based M&T Bank dropped the Cuban Interests Section in Washington last year as a client.
Since then, U.S. banks have decided to err on the side of caution in avoiding any dealings with Cuba, and none has been willing to open an account for the U.S.-based diplomats, who must conduct all of their transactions in cash.
If its officials were unable to conduct U.S. bank transactions for diplomatic purposes, Vidal and other Cuban officials said, the United States would not be complying with the international conventions on diplomatic practices that both delegations on Thursday said they had agreed would govern their new embassies.
Once he receives State’s recommendation, Obama must transmit his decision to Congress. Assuming a positive outcome, there is a 45-day waiting period before implementation of any removals from the list.
In the streets of Havana this week, Cubans seemed to talk of little else but the opening between the two governments. Cuban news media covered the statements of both sides Thursday and those issued following lower-level talks Wednesday on migration issues.
After the Americans had departed the conference hall, Vidal was asked what she thought was the main news of the day. “The news is that Cuba and the United States met for the first time,” she said, and were checking their calendars to schedule the next session.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.