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U.S.-Cuba Talks To Resume On Re-Establishing Diplomatic Relations


The U.S. has barely started to restore relations with Cuba, and already that historic project faces a test.


It's a revealing test, a small issue, but one that gets to the heart of the new U.S. policy. President Obama is hoping that openness might help to free up Cuban society in a way that decades of isolation did not.

MONTAGNE: Six months after he announced his policy, it's still not certain if each country can be open enough to let the other's ambassador travel freely. Until that question is answered, they cannot exchange ambassadors. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Retired ambassador Vicki Huddleston was back in Cuba just last week and visited the Interests Section, which she once ran, a building that's due to be upgraded to an embassy.

VICKI HUDDLESTON: To be an effective embassy, they need more people in the consular section for American services. They need people doing commercial and economic work. They also need to have access to the whole island. And the Cubans need to have access to all of the United States.

KELEMEN: Right now U.S. diplomats can't travel without prior approval of the Cuban government. And the U.S. put similar restrictions on Cuban diplomats. Huddleston is sounding upbeat that soon, these restrictions will be a thing of the past.

HUDDLESTON: Most of us need to agree that that phase is over and done with. And I think that will happen. We might still have to notify them. And they might still have to notify us, like 24 or 70 hours in advance.

KELEMEN: The woman leading the negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, says there are other countries that require U.S. diplomats to notify authorities before any trips. She tried to reassure a skeptical senator, Robert Menendez, that she's working to minimize the limits on diplomats in Cuba and on shipments to a future embassy.


ROBERTA JACOBSON: We won't accept conditions in which we can't securely supply our facilities. We have to be able to...

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Would you agree to open an embassy if you aren't granted the number of staff you need to operate it efficiently?

JACOBSON: Not if we can't have the number of staff we believe we need.

KELEMEN: Menendez sees an administration too willing to compromise with Cuba and not getting much in return. Another Cuba-watcher, Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it's clear the Cubans are not in a rush.

CARL MEACHAM: I'm not surprised by Cuban foot-dragging on normalization. I mean, let's be honest. They're participating out of necessity and not out of choice.

KELEMEN: The Cuban economy is faltering, he says, and Cuba's main bank roller, Venezuela, is, as he puts it, failing economically and politically. So Cuba needs to open up, though Meacham says Havana wants to control the pace.

MEACHAM: The Cuban government feels that American diplomats are going to sort of proselytize for democracy, free press and a free market. This is a threat to the established order.

KELEMEN: Still, he says, a lot has changed since the U.S. and Cuba exchanged prisoners last December and the Obama administration eased trade and travel restrictions. The U.S. also announced that Cuba would be taken off a terrorism blacklist, a move that helped Cuba's diplomatic post here get access to a bank account. Cuban officials are now raising other irritants, including a U.S. program to train journalists on the island and offer Internet access to dissidents. So is Cuba moving the goal posts? Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group doesn't think so.

TOMAS BILBAO: Sometimes, what the Cuban government has said as far as what will be necessary to have normal relations with the U.S. and Cuba has been confused with preconditions for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

KELEMEN: The Cuba Study Group has been advocating for more trade and contact with the communist island. And Bilbao says this is a time for patience. 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.