US, Cuba 'much closer' to opening embassies
Washington, May 23: The US and Cuba ended on Friday their fourth round of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, with the message that the opening of embassies is now "much closer" and that the last obstacles will be overcome in the coming weeks, though not necessarily with another high-profile gathering.
The meeting that began on Thursday in Washington could be the last encounter of the respective chief negotiators before the reestablishment of diplomatic ties broken off more than half a century ago, judging by the words of US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.
"We made progress today, but we still have things...that we have to come to agreement on. Obviously, we do have interests sections in each other's countries and can have communications without face-to-face meetings," Jacobson told a press conference after the meetings.
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Jacobson said the negotiations have made "significant progress in the last five months and are much closer to re-establishing relations and reopening embassies".
This round of talks was "highly productive," the US official said.
More cautious was Cuba's chief negotiator, senior foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal, in her statement to the press after the meeting.
"Both delegations agreed to continue our exchanges on issues related to the functioning of diplomatic missions, so we will continue those conversations over the next few weeks," Vidal said, without specifying whether the talks would continue with another negotiating round or at a lower level.
Nonetheless, according to Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, Jacobson's statement that another negotiating round was probably unnecessary "was revealing and suggests that an announcement about re-establishing diplomatic relations is imminent".
"This is what both sides want," Shifter said, adding that he believes that once an accord has been reached, it is probable that Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez will be in charge of making the announcement.
Cuba believes that two great obstacles for the process have been eliminated since the last round, held in Havana last March.
The first refers to its Interests Section in Washington, which went a year without a bank to handle its financial operations in the US, but which now has an account with Florida's Stonegate Bank.
The other obstacle was the presence of Cuba on the US government's list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which the island will be removed on May 29, thanks to a recent decision by President Barack Obama.
This week's negotiations focused on "aspects related to the functioning of embassies and the behaviour of diplomats" of the respective countries, Vidal said.
The chief discrepancies, up to now, lie in the US demand that its diplomats have the freedom of movement similar to what they enjoy in Russia and China, while Cuba wants guarantees that they will not take advantage of that situation to establish contacts with dissidents.
Jacobson said on Friday that when the agreement is reached, the US embassy in Havana "will be able to function" despite the same kind of controls and restrictions that have been placed on US diplomats in other countries with authoritarian governments, so that the situation in Cuba won't be exceptional.