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More U.S.-Cuba Talks Ahead, Including Human Rights Dialogue


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba are starting to take shape. The two sides held meetings at the State Department yesterday and say they plan to upgrade their diplomatic missions in Havana and Washington, D.C., to full embassies soon, possibly as early as April. But many tough issues lie ahead before they can establish more normal ties. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The two women at the center of these negotiations came away from the latest round of talks sounding upbeat about their progress. Cuba's Josefina Vidal says the conversations have been respectful and constructive.


JOSEFINA VIDAL: We are confident that there can be civilized relations and coexistence between Cuba and the United States.

KELEMEN: For her part, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson says their face-to-face dialogue is key.

U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE ROBERTA JACOBSON: It reinforces our belief that diplomatic relations and having full embassies is incredibly important in a relationship like this, where you have so much to overcome and where you have differences. The ability to have these kinds of very frank conversations is a key variable.

KELEMEN: She says she hopes that the two sides can manage to upgrade their diplomatic posts to full embassies before the Summit of the Americas in April. The U.S. wants Cuba to lift a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats and let them travel freely to do their work. And though Jacobson says they're making headway, there's clearly more work to do. She jokes about Vidal's suggestion of a permanent dialogue.

JACOBSON: I like that phrase, although it exhausts me slightly because when you use the word permanent, it makes it sound like we're not going to sleep.

KELEMEN: Cuba's priority in this, Vidal says, is getting off the State Department's terrorism blacklist.


VIDAL: It would be very difficult to say that we have reestablished relations with our country still on a list that we believe very, very firmly that we have never belonged to and we do not belong to.

KELEMEN: Cuba's critics in the U.S. Congress are urging the State Department not to take Cuba off that terrorism list. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, says the U.S. should first demand that Cuba stop harboring U.S. fugitives. Vidal makes clear she is not negotiating the return of Americans given asylum on the island.


VIDAL: Cuba legitimately has granted political asylum to a small group of American citizens because we had reasons to believe that they deserve that, and this is it.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. and Cuba will be holding talks in the coming weeks on many important issues, including migration and telecommunications. A human rights dialogue is set to begin in late March. A Republican congresswoman from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, says the Obama administration needs to press Cuba much harder on that. She told Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing this past week that she doesn't think the U.S. is getting anything out of this new opening to Cuba.


CONGRESSWOMAN ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: The U.S. didn't even get one cosmetic commitment to democratic reform from the Castro regime. And the regime keeps demanding more from us - give back Gitmo, pay us billions of dollars from the losses we suffered from the embargo -utterly ridiculous.

KELEMEN: State Department officials insist that opening an embassy isn't a gift to the Castro regime. It's in U.S. interest. They also say that while President Obama wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, there's been no talk with Cuba about closing the naval base. President Raul Castro has said ties won't be normal until then. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. 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.