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U.S., Cuba Continue Talks On Reopening Embassies


The U.S. and Cuba still have a ways to go to restore diplomatic relations. Two days of talks in Washington failed to break the deadlock over a key step - how future embassies should function here and in Havana. The thaw in relations is not going nearly so quickly as many had hoped. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The two women at the center of these negotiations - top Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Josefina Vidal and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson - have spent many hours across the negotiating table since the U.S. and Cuba announced plans last year to restore ties. After these latest talks, both spoke of progress, as diplomats often do. But Jacobson points out, there's a half-century of mistrust to overcome.


ROBERTA JACOBSON: I actually am both an optimist by nature, but also a realist about the difficulties of this process and how much we have to get past.

KELEMEN: This was supposed to be the easy part - upgrading the so-called interests sections to full-fledged embassies. The U.S. needs to make sure it can get supplies to its mission in Havana, and it wants to increase the number of diplomats there and make sure they can travel around the island. Jacobson says there could be some limits on that, as there are for diplomats serving in about 10 other countries.


JACOBSON: There are a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries. We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range, and so it won't be unique. It won't be anything that doesn't exist elsewhere in the world.

KELEMEN: Diplomats might, for instance, have to notify Cuban authorities before any travel. Cuba's Josefina Vidal wouldn't weigh-in on these specific details. She only said that Cuba is pleased with President Obama's decision to take her country off a terrorism blacklist and the State Department's help in getting the Cuban interests section a bank account. Cuba is now raising concerns about U.S. democracy programs on the island.


JOSEFINA VIDAL: We exchanged views on every aspect related to the functioning of embassies and the behavior of diplomats.

KELEMEN: Assistant Secretary Jacobson has suggested that the U.S. could revise journalism training programs that Cuba sees as an irritant. That's frustrating Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez, who told the State Department official during a hearing this week that the U.S. has made too many concessions since a prisoner swap ushered-in this thaw last December.


SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: The Cubans - Castro - said, you want a relationship? You've got to return the three convicted spies. Check. We gave them the three spies. You want a relationship? Take us off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Check. We gave them that.

KELEMEN: And now, he says, the Cubans want the U.S. to change its democracy programs. The New Jersey Democrat doesn't buy the Obama administration's argument that better relations will help the U.S. promote change on the island.


MENENDEZ: Here we are, human rights abuses continued unabated, with more than 1,600 cases of arbitrary political unrest this year alone, only five months into the year. So President Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still have their fists real tight.

KELEMEN: The diplomats who spent the past two days negotiating though insist they are getting closer to the day when the Cold War foes can exchange ambassadors, the first step toward more normal ties. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.