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US-Cuba Talks Kick Off amid Fierce Debate

By: Elisa Vásquez - @elisavasquez88 - Jan 21, 2015, 9:51 am

EspañolOfficial talks will begin on Thursday, January 22, between the United States and Cuba, as relations between the Caribbean nation and its North American neighbor undergo a marked thaw.

On Wednesday, Havana will host an informal roundtable discussion on immigration issues, ahead of a broader meeting on Thursday. During the latter, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, representatives will discuss “the first steps towards the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, and the opening of embassies in both countries.”

Los cubanos esperan una oleada de cambios positivos de la reanudación de relaciones con EEUU (Neurope)
Many Cubans hope that broader changes will follow the reopening of ties with the United States.  (Neurope)

The delegation from Washington will be headed by US Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson. Josefina Vidal, director of US affairs within the Cuban Foreign Ministry, will represent the government of Raúl Castro.

The meeting will be the first formal event in a series of forthcoming political and commercial encounters. The flurry of diplomatic activity follows preliminary announcements by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart on December 17.

Obama signaled that the process of reopening ties with Cuba will characterize his remaining years in office, in the course of his State of the Union address this Tuesday, delivered before a Republican-majority Congress. Also present was former USAID contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba for five years until his release on December 17.

The US premier will have to deal with stiff Congressional opposition, as well as those members of the Cuban opposition who are against any easing up on the Castro regime. Several have argued that greater economic revenues will only strengthen the government without resulting in substantive reform.

Among the critics is Rosa María Payá, the daughter of Cuban opposition activist Oswaldo Payá, who died in a car accident widely presumed to be have been caused by regime officials.

Rosa María Payá was invited to listen to Obama’s address by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the most prominent critics of recent US-Cuban agreements. Payá has said on various occasions that the Castro regime will monopolize the benefits of economic liberalization at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Concerns for Cuba

On Sunday, January 18, a group of Democratic Congressmen headed by Sen. Patric Leahy held talks with Cuban opposition groups, many of whom have criticized the ongoing diplomatic process for failing to guarantee democratic concessions.

Spokesman for the the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) Elizardo Sánchez explained that opposition groups were divided on the talks, with some claiming that they should only follow significant reforms by the Cuban regime, while others consider that renewed ties will help to foster change on the island.

Sánchez issued Sen. Leahy with a list of 24 political prisoners, each of whom has now been imprisoned for between 10 and 20 years. The Cuban dissident asked that the liberation of these individuals be raised in bilateral meetings.

Antonio Rodiles, director of the Cuban-US civil society organization State of SATS, was among those who believed that the US has conceded key ground to Cuba without securing any moves towards democracy in exchange.

“The meeting was cordial, we heard the various positions,” Rodiles told press. “But the senators are very favorable to the measures being taken by Obama, and they were looking for us to say that we agreed with them.”

“I said that the process has taken place without transparency, and lacking a balance of opinions,” he added.

A Driving Role for Business

The US business sector has made several moves since December towards forging new links with the Cuban market in the wake of diplomatic talks.

On Saturday, January 17, the Wall Street Journal revealed that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, will head the first commercial visit to the island nation in over half a century.

“As part of the Global NY initiative, Governor Cuomo plans to lead a trade mission to Cuba. This is one of several such trips promoting New York that he plans to take in the coming term,” Melissa DeRosa, spokesperson for the State of New York State, told press.

Meanwhile, a group of 78 business leaders, senior politicians, and members of the US-Cuban community signed an open letter on Monday backing Obama’s moves to normalize relations and loosen, if not end outright, the economic embargo on Cuba.

The letter was supported by well-known business figures such as the US-Cuban Fanjul brothers, and Venezuelan-Cuban business magnate Gustavo Cisneros.

“Our new posture of engagement will advance our national interests and our values by empowering the Cuban people’s capacity to work toward a more democratic and prosperous country — conditions that are very much in US interests,” the letter says.

The letter further highlights the importance of encouraging the free flow of information between Cuba and the United States, the expansion of business ties, and giving support to Cuban civil society so that ordinary Cubans “can take greater control over their own lives.”

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Elisa Vásquez Elisa Vásquez

Elisa Vásquez is a Venezuelan journalist with experience covering social and community topics. Her specialty is human rights education and international solidarity. She reports from Panama City. Follow her on Twitter @elisavasquez88.