U.S., Cuba begin historic talks on restoring diplomatic ties

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The United States and Cuba held historic discussions on restoring diplomatic relations on Thursday, aiming to reach agreement on the opening of embassies in each other’s countries as a step toward ending five decades of bitterness.

The first session of the meeting, led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, focused on technical issues related to reestablishing diplomatic ties.

“We have spoken about the principles upon which our diplomatic relations should be re-established,” Gustavo Machin, the Cuban foreign ministry’s deputy director for U.S. affairs, told reporters at a Havana convention center where the talks are being held.

Machin described the encounter as “very respectful and flexible” and that not all the outstanding issues would be resolved in the first meeting.

“We will continue these exchanges,” Machin said.

The talks are the first since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they would work to restore diplomatic ties, which Washington severed in 1961 two years after Raul’s brother Fidel took power and began implementing Communist rule.

U.S. officials said Jacobson and Vidal met for an working dinner on Wednesday night in a rare visit by Cuban officials to the official U.S. residence in Havana. It is the first time in nearly 40 years that a U.S. assistant secretary has visited the island nation.

The United States is seeking to upgrade its interests section in Havana to an embassy and wants Cuba to end travel restrictions on its diplomats, as well as convince Cuban authorities to hand over U.S. fugitives.

Cuba wants to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that is under review by the U.S. State Department.

A contentious session on immigration on Wednesday, led by Vidal and Jacobson’s deputy, Alex Lee, accentuated the difficulties in overcoming half a century of hostilities.

During the talks on Wednesday the Americans vowed to continue to grant safe haven to Cubans with special protections denied to other nationalities.

Cuba complained the U.S. law promotes dangerous illegal immigration and protested a separate U.S. program that encourages Cuban doctors to defect, calling it a “reprehensible brain drain practice”.

Despite resistance from some in Congress, Obama has set the United States on a path toward removing economic sanctions and a 53-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said he looks forward to formally opening a U.S. embassy in Cuba.

Kerry said on Wednesday he was prepared, when the time was right, to meet his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, with whom he has only spoken by telephone.

“And when it is timely, when it is appropriate, I look forward to traveling to Cuba in order to formally open an embassy and begin to move forward,” Kerry told reporters in Washington.

In his annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Obama urged Congress to start work on ending the embargo, but critics say Obama first needs to win concessions on a list of issues. They include: Cuban political prisoners and democratic rights, the claims of U.S. citizens whose property was nationalized after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and U.S. fugitives who have received asylum in Cuba.

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