HAVANA — The most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades arrived here Wednesday for talks on normalizing relations between the two countries, barely a month after President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced an end to 61 years of official estrangement.
After a working dinner Wednesday night, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of U.S. relations at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, will meet Thursday to formally initiate discussions on reopening embassies in the two capitals.
Both sides have put an optimistic face on the talks. But both have agendas that are likely to require additional negotiation beyond this week’s inaugural meeting.
Vidal, considered a powerful, up-and-coming figure in the Cuban hierarchy, also headed a separate session Wednesday of the biannual U.S.-Cuba talks on migration issues, part of a dialogue begun in 1995.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Jacobson’s deputy, Alex Lee, Vidal said that, while there was ongoing cooperation on technical issues and between the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban border patrol, Havana continues to object to the U.S. “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil to apply for permanent residency.
The policy encouraged Cubans to leave the country illegally, often in unseaworthy craft, she said, and had led to increasing illegal entry of Cubans into the United States through third countries, often via human trafficking over the Mexico border or with false documents.
In an indication of the breadth of the distance between the two governments over a range of issues, Vidal also faulted the United States for encouraging the defection of Cuban doctors and other professionals working in third countries as part of Cuba’s foreign aid programs.
Lee told reporters that the “wet foot, dry foot” policy would “very much remain in effect,” as would the Cuban Adjustment Act, which he said would “continue to guide U.S. migration policy toward Cuba.”
Cuba also wants the United States to remove it from its list of “state sponsors of terrorists,” a senior Cuban official said Tuesday. While the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said removal was not a precondition for restoring ties, he said it was “inconceivable” that the two nations could have relations if Cuba remains “unfairly on that list.”
Cuba’s presence on the list, along with Sudan, Syria and Iran, has long been an anomaly attributable more to the overall estrangement between the two countries than Cuban actions. While the others are accused of ongoing sponsorship of terrorist acts abroad, Cuba’s sins, according to the annual State Department report on the list, include the presence here for decades of members of ETA, the Spanish Basque militant organization, whose return Spain long ago stopped seeking.
Cuba is also accused of harboring several dozen U.S. fugitives, including Joanne Chesimard, wanted in the 1971 slaying of a New Jersey state trooper.
Obama has ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s listing, which dates to 1982, and recommend a course of action. Assuming he approves Cuba’s removal, he must then transmit his decision to Congress for a 45-day waiting period until it takes effect.
A senior State Department official said the United States would expect normalization “going forward even while there is a waiting period” for formal removal from the list.
The senior Cuban official also said that relations could not be fully normalized until the U.S. trade embargo, initially imposed in 1960, is completely lifted. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to do so, saying that “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.”
But Cuban officials are well aware that any congressional action will take time and is far from assured. Last week, Obama used his executive authority to adjust regulations on the embargo, including an easing of travel and trade restrictions.
As part of the embassy negotiations, U.S. officials want Cuba to lift restrictions on the number of U.S. diplomats here and to ease the heavy security presence around the building that it says intimidates Cubans from visiting.
Obama has said the United States will continue to push Havana on issues of human rights and democracy as it moves toward a new relationship. Jacobson plans to hold a breakfast for Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents Friday before her departure.
The senior Cuban official said his government would also raise its “concerns” about human rights issues in the United States, citing the police controversies in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
U.S. opponents of normalization, who have charged that Obama has gotten little in return for what they describe as a “gift” to Castro and Cuba’s communist government, called for additional American demands to be immediately put on the table.
In a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said that Jacobson “must prioritize the interests of American citizens and businesses that have suffered at the hands of the Castro regime before providing additional economic and political concessions to a government that remains hostile to U.S. interests.”