Sparring over Human Rights Defines Initial US-Cuba Talks



As the first round of historic talks between the United States and Cuba finished on Thursday, January 22, Washington and Havana made initial steps towards establishing formal embassies.

However, a renewal of formal diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961 faces significant obstacles. In particular, tension arose when US officials called on Cuba to deliver greater progress on human rights, particularly with regard to freedom of expression and association.

The Protagonists

The first round of talks, designed to reset relations between the island nation and its North American neighbor, were kicked off by announcements by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro on December 17. This first encounter in Havana was envisaged as an opportunity for both countries to present their conditions for strengthening diplomatic relations.

Both groups of negotatiors were headed up by women, with the US delegation led by Roberta Jacobson and that of Cuba by Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.

Jacobson is a specialist in Latin America, having represented the State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs since 1988, with postings in Peru and Mexico, and previously responsible for Cuban relations between 1994 and 1996. She currently holds the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Josefa Vidal Ferreiro, meanwhile, heads the United States Division of the Cuban Foreign Ministry (Minrex), following previous postings to France (1990-1997) and various responsibilities for US and North American affairs since her return.

Joining the talks were members of civil society, religious groups, and business leaders, including the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Human Rights: a Sticking Point

Human rights were set to be a controversial issue during talks from the outset. On January 19, an anonymous official from within the US State Department confirmed that the US government would continue pressuring its Cuban counterpart to meet international human rights standards, including the prohibition on overseas travel faced by Cuban citizens.

The official highlighted the importance of creating regular contacts between the two countries and increasing trade, particularly on the issue of telecommunications and tools which could further empower the Cuban population.

However, during talks on Wednesday, the Cuban delegation bristled at US “pressure” on the issue, and they challenged Washington’s authority on the matter, highlighting human rights shortcomings in emblematic cases such as the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri.

Immigration Obstacles

Immigration also proved a contentious issue, with discussion on Wednesday seeing marked disagreement over the US policy on would-be Cuban migrants. Cuban negotiators argued that the “wet feet, dry feet” policy of its North American neighbor encouraged illegal emigration from the island.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers Cuban exiles permanent residence and work visas after being on US soil for a year and a day, was also singled out for criticism, as well as the Cuban Family Reunification Plan, which expedites the transfer of Cubans to the United States, at which point they can apply for permanent status.

Talks also raised the possibility of the US accelerating the deportation of Cuban exiles convicted of committing serious crimes in the United States, currently 35,525 individuals in total. However, as yet there appears to be no legislative moment in the US on any of the above issues.

An End to the Cuba Embargo?

On the Cuban side, an anonymous senior official told CNN on Tuesday, January 20, that diplomatic relations would not be considered normalized until the Embargo was eliminated. Such a move would require Congressional approval, something which Obama called for during his State of the Union address on the same day.

According to an article published in Cuban newspaper Granma on January 21, the Havana planned to enter the talks with a “constructive spirit aiming to maintain a respectful dialogue, based on equal sovereignty and reciprocity, without infringing national independence and the self-determination of the Cuban people.”

The interviewed Cuban official further added that the Cuban negotiators would emphasize the need for any reopening of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies to be based on fundamental international legal principles, such as the UN Charter, and the Vienna Convention which governs consular and diplomatic procedures.

With regard to the lifting of the US economic embargo on the island, the Cuban delegation acknowledged that such a move would be in the hands of the US Congress. Both teams of negotiators, however, recognized that such problematic topics, along with immigration and human rights, would be taken up in future talks.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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