More tough talks ahead as U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations
– Accord on embassies just a first step
– Other topics: human rights, legal disputes, extradition
– Unsettled: 5,913 American claims for expropriated property
BY HANNAH ALLAM AND MIMI WHITEFIELD
July 20 is the date when the United States and Cuba officially restore
diplomatic ties. But that moment, historic as it is after a break of
more than five decades, doesn’t mean the tough conversations are over.
Full normalization between the two longtime foes will be a gradual
process that unfolds through many more rounds of technical, nitty-gritty
negotiations, Cuba analysts say. Diplomats already have begun talks on
some of the thorniest matters, from mutual accusations of human rights
violations to billions of dollars in unresolved legal claims.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity
as per diplomatic protocol, this week described “specialized
conversations on various themes that have to now move forward.”
“Each of those is kind of getting you one step closer to a more normal
relationship,” the official said.
Here are some of the lingering issues:
“THE RETURN FROM CUBA OF FUGITIVES FROM U.S. JUSTICE IS AN ISSUE OF
LONGSTANDING CONCERN TO THE UNITED STATES.”
National Security Council spokeswoman
Some 70 U.S. fugitives are believed to be living in Cuba, and their
fates could change as part of the restored U.S.-Cuba relations. U.S.
authorities are leaning on the Castro government to extradite the wanted
men and women, starting with the two most prominent:
– Assata Shakur, the former Joanne Chesimard, a convicted murderer and
former Black Panther who was granted political asylum in Cuba after she
escaped in 1979 from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life
– William Guillermo Morales, a militant Puerto Rican separatist who
slipped out of police custody at a hospital in New York in 1979 and is
believed to have been in Cuba since 1988. In the United States, Morales
was sentenced to 99 years in prison in connection with two deadly
explosions in New York during the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government is also seeking a return of its own
fugitives, with Luis Posada Carriles at the top of the list. Cuba and
Venezuela blame him for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed
73 people as well as the 1997 bombings of two Havana hotels. He’s
reportedly living openly in Florida after he was acquitted in Texas in
2011 on charges he lied to U.S. immigration officials about his role in
the 1997 bombings.
Talks on extradition are said to be intensifying, though it’s unclear
what will happen with a prisoner such as Shakur – Cuba has maintained
that it has a right as a sovereign nation to offer political asylum. In
April, the National Security Council spokeswoman at the time, Bernadette
Meehan, said that “the return from Cuba of fugitives from U.S. justice
is an issue of longstanding concern to the United States that will be
addressed in the broader context of normalizing relations.”
U.S. officials and lawmakers continue to raise concerns about human
rights in Cuba. The State Department’s latest human rights report on
Cuba, released last month, said the main abuses were “the abridgement of
the ability of citizens to change the government” (the Castros have been
in power since 1959) as well as harsh treatment for dissidents: “the use
of government threats, extrajudicial physical assault, intimidation,
violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent,
and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful
The list goes on and on – restricted Internet access for example, or
lack of recognition for independent human rights groups and labor unions
– but U.S. officials also have noted that Cuba released 53 political
prisoners from its jails as a gesture of goodwill shortly before and
after the rapprochement was announced.
On the Cuban side, Havana has bashed the United States over detentions
at Guantanamo Bay, “police abuse” as exemplified in Ferguson, Mo., and
other cities, and racial and gender inequalities.
A telecommunications opening, announced last December as part of the
White House’s plan to renew diplomatic relations with Havana, allows
U.S. companies to sell personal communications equipment in Cuba, as
well as to work on side projects to improve Cuba’s outdated Internet and
President Barack Obama offered a similar plan in 2009 but it went
nowhere, because there was no big push to restore relations, and the
telecom regulations weren’t clear on matters such as how close a U.S.
cable could get to Cuban territory. This time, however, there’s interest
from both sides, along with clearer regulations.
In February, the Newark, N.J.-based IDT Corp. became the first company
to strike a long-distance deal with Cuba and is now handling direct
calls to the country; previously, U.S. carriers had to use a non-U.S.
carrier for the final connection. In June, Google executives visited the
island with a plan to greatly expand Internet access, but it’s unclear
whether the Cuban government wants to go forward with the proposal.
Talks remain underway as U.S. officials and investors push to see how
far Havana will go with the opening. Analysts have said that the rules
must be clearly spelled out, making explicit, for example, whether U.S.
companies are able to set up a storefront for cellphones and other
consumer communications equipment and franchise such operations to Cuban
Outstanding legal claims – to the tune of billions of dollars – make up
one of the biggest, most complicated hurdles to full normalization.
Since 1964, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an independent
branch of the Justice Department, has recognized 5,913 claims against
Cuba over the seizure of American-owned property after the revolution.
The claims were worth about $1.9 billion at the time; today, they total
about $7 billion with interest adjustment.
While the bulk of the claims come from individuals, the biggest are held
by companies: a $71 million loss suffered by the then-Exxon Corp. over
the expropriation of an oil refinery and a $167 million claim by the
Cuban Electric Co. That claim now belongs to Office Depot Inc. because
of corporate acquisitions, Bloomberg reported last year.
Under U.S. law, the embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted until a set
conditions is met, including the settlement of the U.S. legal claims.
With no conceivable way for the impoverished nation to issue such huge
payouts in a lump sum, Cuba analysts say, diplomats are likely searching
for some other, longer-term agreement.
On the Cuban side, there’s the matter of a lawsuit filed against the
United States in 1999 holding the U.S. embargo responsible for
devastating Cuba’s economy. The status of the lawsuit is unclear.
During the recent Ebola epidemic, the Obama administration took the
unusual step of publicly praising Cuba’s response to the crisis, joining
global health officials who lauded Havana for acting particularly
quickly to dispatch top doctors to help contain the spread of the
disease. Cuban doctors and nurses even staffed a U.S. Agency for
International Development-funded Ebola treatment center in Liberia.
Health officials in both countries look forward to more such
partnerships as normalization progresses. The medical journal Health
Affairs identified four key areas “that can bring mutual gain in
improving lives and advancing knowledge:” long-range research and
scientific partnerships in biotechnology, vaccines and tropical
medicine; U.S. private-sector help to modernize Cuba’s health care
system, lessons from Cuba in preventive medicine and primary care in
“resource-constrained settings;” and U.S.-Cuban collaborations in
responding to overseas health emergencies as well as assisting
low-income countries to build affordable basic health services.
Whitefield reports for The Miami Herald.
Hannah Allam: email@example.com, 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam
Mimi Whitefield: mwhitefield@MiamiHerald.com
Source: More tough talks ahead as U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations
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