Next round of US-Cuba talks Feb 27 in Washington

Next round of US-Cuba talks Feb 27 in Washington
US Senator Patrick Leahy (right), who is leading a US delegation in the first congressional mission to Cuba since the change of policy announced by US President Barack Obama on December 17, speaks to journalists at a hotel in downtown Havana, January 19, 2015.

WASHINGTON - The United States and Cuba will hold a second round of talks on normalizing relations on February 27 in Washington, the State Department said Tuesday, as they work to end half a century of enmity.

The announcement came as House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi became one of the seniormost US lawmakers to visit the communist-ruled island in more than 50 years, with Washington and Havana engaging in an unprecedented detente.

"I can confirm that the talks will be held on the 27th here at the State Department, the 27th of February," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The first round of talks were held at the end of January in Havana, with the two countries discussing reopening embassies and renewing ties that have been severed for decades.

US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro took the world by surprise on December 17 when they announced they would begin normalizing ties.

Washington has since taken steps to ease certain restrictions on trade and travel, while Cuba freed 53 prisoners whose release was sought by the United States.

But Castro has cautioned that relations between the two Cold War-era foes will not return to normal until the United States lifts an embargo imposed in 1962.

Obama also has come under fire from Republicans, and some Democrats, and expectations were low that the US Congress would move any time soon to lift the embargo.

The Republicans control both chambers of Congress and several in the party have openly stated that any legislation that would end the embargo without dramatic changes in Cuba was dead in the water.

But some lawmakers have signalled they were serious about improving ties.

Two prominent US congressional delegations were in Havana on Tuesday, including one led by Pelosi.

"This delegation will work to advance the US-Cuba relationship and build on the work done by many in the Congress over the years, especially with respect to agriculture and trade," Pelosi said in a statement.

'Hope and expectations'

Pelosi's delegation, which she said travelled to Cuba in "friendship," consisted of eight other Democratic members of the House of Representatives, including the top Democrats on the House foreign affairs and agriculture committees.

Congressman Jim McGovern, a co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, was also in the delegation.

Three US Senate Democrats -- Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Warner of Virginia -- were also in Havana during the announcement of a new round of talks.

"We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington," Warner told reporters.

They said lifting the embargo would require a bipartisan effort.

"One of the reasons we came on this trip was that we could go back and tell our colleagues what we've seen: That there are more and more people engaged in private sector business, that there is an entrepreneurial spirit here," Klobuchar said.

"The people want to see better relations with the US."

In December, just days before Obama announced the dramatic US policy shift on Cuba, Republican Senator Jeff Flake secretly travelled to Havana with Senate Democrats on a mission to bring home a jailed American.

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