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'Deep disagreements' emerge in first round of US-Cuba talks

The first round of high-level talks between United States and Cuba wrapped up this week.

The first round of high-level talks between United States and Cuba wrapped up this week, with diplomats acknowledging both common ground and “deep disagreements” in mending relations between the two countries.

In a press conference Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said that the two countries have a number of shared interests to pursue, despite the diplomatic differences over aspects of normalizing relations after more than five decades of estrangement.

“Yesterday marked an important step forward for the relationship between the United States and Cuba — but this is the first step,” Jacobson said. “We know there will need to be many more, but this is the work of diplomacy in order to build a better and more productive relationship between our two countries.”

First up on the to-do list: Reopening embassies in each country for the first time since 1961. The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments have already eased travel and trade restrictions. Moving forward, both sides hope to negotiate opening more commercial flights in the future and to increase the flow of information to the island nation, including bringing universal Internet access to Cubans.

The bilateral meeting was the first since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro publicly pledged last month to begin the process of restoring diplomatic ties. But if the response from both delegations was any indication of the timeline for the process, the two countries have a long road to travel before relations are fully normalized.

Jacobson said she didn’t “have a crystal ball” showing what restored relations would look like five to 10 years from now, but said both sides appear committed to mending the estranged relationship.

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“We need to make decisions that are in our interests and take decisions that are going to empower the Cuban people,” she said. “The verdict on whether that succeeds is still to be made.”

Jacobson said the initial talks were “cordial and respectful,” but that there were a range of issues on which the two countries had “deep disagreements.” A cornerstone of that pledge from the United States lies on human rights concerns in Cuba — a contentious issue over how the regime treats its citizens and, more notably, political dissidents.

“There is no doubt that human rights remains the center of our policy, and it is crucial that we will continue to both speak out about human rights publicly and directly now with the Cuban government,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson’s counterpart at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, said one of her country's core interests was in lifting the 1960 U.S. embargo on exports to Cuba, an action that must first be signed off by Congress.

“Still, despite the profound difference, it is possible for both nations to conduct business in a civilized manner,” Vidal said Thursday.

Another thorny topic involves Cuba’s place on the U.S.’s terror designation list. The island nation has been listed since 1982 as a state that sponsors terrorism, a designation shared by countries such as Iran and Syria. 

“Normalizing relations will be difficult as long as Cuba is in the list of terrorist countries,” Vidal added Thursday.

It will likely be several weeks before the U.S. and Cuban delegations arrange the next round of talks. Later in April, Obama and Castro are both expected to attend the Summit of the Americas held in Panama.