The United States government has dampened expectations that re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba and a re-opening of embassies was just around the corner.
“We are not there yet”, said Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and the lead US negotiator with Havana, in a Congressional hearing.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she pointed to “still significant differences” between the two governments, especially about human rights issues.
Jacobson voiced confidence, though, that diplomacy and direct engagement with Cuba would eventually lead to political and economic reforms “to the benefit of the people” on the Caribbean island.
Her remarks came one day before the fourth round of normalization talks at the State Department in Washington on Thursday.
Since President Barack Obama’s December 17 announcement of a new policy of engagement with Cuba after more than a half century of isolation, there have been three rounds of negotiations.
The last session was held in Havana in March, although the US and Cuba have continued to have exchanges on a variety of topics, including migration, law enforcement, human trafficking, telecommunications and Internet access, and mutual environmental concerns, in recent months.
Is Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism?
Cuban leader Raúl Castro said Tuesday that he anticipated the two countries could name ambassadors after Cuba comes off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Cuba, which was named to the list in 1982 for promoting revolution in Latin America and Africa, has long contended it never should have been put on the list.
A 45-day waiting period during which Congress can mount objections to President Obama’s decision to take Cuba off the list expires May 29 and at that time Cuba is expected to be removed.
During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Jacobson came under fire from some senators strongly opposed to any change in policy toward Cuba.
The harshest criticism came from a member of Obama’s own party: Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat who has split with the administration on how to deal with Cuba, railed against Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and said the island continues to actively violate human rights.
“I have deep concerns that the more these talks progress, the more the administration continues to entertain unilateral concessions without – in return – getting agreement on fundamental issues that are in our national interest and those of the Cuban people,” Menendez said.
Menendez brought up the cases of Joanne Chesimard and Charles Hill, whom he decribed as “known terrorists” who enjoy safe haven in Cuba. Chesimard is on the FBI’s most wanted list for murdering a New Jersey State Trooper and Hill is wanted for killing a New Mexico State Trooper and for hijacking a US civilian plane, Menendez said.
Loosening of travel restrictions criticized
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, took a shot at the administration for talking to chronic human rights abusers. “Their views on human rights are not legitimate, they’re immoral,” Rubio said of the Cuban government.
He also went after loosening travel restrictions which would only fill the coffers of the Cuban state, especially the military, as most hotels in Cuba are run by the government, Rubio said.
Support for the Obama administration came mostly from Democratic senators. Barbara Boxer of California noted that the US has relations with countries such as Vietnam and China where many businesses are state-owned and there’s been no calls to restrict travel to those states.