Latin America & Caribbean

Analysis: US-Cuba historic talks

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption These were the highest-level talks in decades between the US and Cuba

Two days of talks between the United Sates and Cuba have ended with both sides agreeing to meet again in a bid to "normalise" relations.

BBC Washington correspondent Barbara Plett Usher and Cuba correspondent Will Grant have been following the talks in Havana and give the American and Cuban perspectives on the historic meeting.

Barbara Plett Usher

The Americans were measured in their assessment of this historic meeting.

Roberta Jacobson, the head of the US delegation, called it an important first step, but just a first step.

The two sides made some progress in laying out the agenda for restoring full diplomatic relations and agreed to continue talking in the coming weeks.

Ms Jacobson didn't elaborate on the details, but one of the trickier US requests is that the government allow Cubans free entry to the US mission.

The Cuban authorities are unhappy that the Americans have been offering access to the internet and classes inside the current Interests Section.

Inevitably, freedom of expression and human rights dominated the public remarks of the top US diplomat. This is one of the most fundamental of the "profound disagreements" between the two countries.

And politically it's important for her to be seen to be addressing it, because congressional critics accuse the Obama administration of appeasing Havana.

Ms Jacobson made a point of having breakfast with political dissidents, annoying the Cubans.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Jacobson also held a separate meeting with Cuban dissidents

But the state department had earlier described the meeting as part of talking with Cubans "of all backgrounds and political views about the president's actions", noting there was "a diversity of opinion".

Whatever the public sparring, the decision to engage with Cuba is not preconditioned on the communist state's human rights record.

"Normalization is not a reward," said a senior US official before the visit, it's "in the US national interest".

That's because America was internationally isolated on Cuba and decided engagement might also be a more effective way to influence internal dynamics, offering support to the private sector and internet expansion in hopes that this would lead to political reforms.

Whether that will happen Ms Jacobson couldn't say: "It's never a good idea to draw conclusions after a first conversation," she offered diplomatically.

Establishing full diplomatic ties would at least create an official and regular channel in which to have what will continue to be very tough conversations.

Will Grant

The head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal, appeared the more upbeat of the two diplomats - perhaps reflecting the government's narrative in Cuba that this diplomatic thaw was another "victory" over the US for the Cuban revolution.

But behind closed doors, it seems both sides tried to treat the meetings as an opportunity to lay the ground rules for future talks.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Havana was the venue for the historic talks

For Cuba, that meant reiterating their often repeated demand that they should be removed from the US government's list of state sponsors of terrorism. It would be "difficult to explain" a thaw in relations, Ms Vidal said, while Cuba remains "unjustly listed".

The Americans are already investigating the possibility, and Cuba may well be removed from a group which includes Sudan and Syria within six months.

The Cubans clearly bristled at the mention of human rights. When the Americans said they had "pressed" Cuba on the matter, the Cuban delegation said that wasn't the case and that they didn't respond well to pressure.

Furthermore, they said they had been the ones to bring up the thorny issue by pointing to the US record in that area.

But beyond the obvious political differences, which will take time to resolve, these talks were also about practicalities.

On the first day, they discussed migration as part of their regular six-monthly meetings on the issue. Again, Cuba voiced its opposition to a policy called "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" as well as a measure encouraging Cuban doctors to abandon their humanitarian missions abroad and migrate to the US - which Ms Vidal called a "reprehensible brain-drain practice".

To the practical questions of when will the two sides will be able to turn their respective Interests Sections into full embassies or name ambassadors, the Cubans seemed to reach the same conclusion as the Americans.

We are progressing slowly and in the right direction, they told the waiting media, but you can't undo over 50 years of hostility in just one round of talks.

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