US, Cuba to focus on reopening embassies in Washington talks

US, Cuba to focus on reopening embassies in Washington talks
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10, 2015 .

WASHINGTON - The United States and Cuba resume talks on Thursday aiming to overcome obstacles to opening embassies in each other's capitals and re-establishing diplomatic ties, the crucial next step in their historic detente.

Both sides have reported progress in closing in on a deal, part of an agreement clinched between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December. Once diplomatic relations are restored, the long-time adversaries will work on the more complicated task of normalizing overall relations.

But Washington wants assurances that its diplomats will have more freedom of movement, while Castro this week reiterated Cuban concerns that dissidents are receiving "illegal" training at the US Interests Section in Havana.

US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson assured lawmakers in testimony on Wednesday that Washington would not agree to the opening of an embassy in Havana without its diplomats being able to travel outside the capital.

The two countries have interests sections rather than embassies in each other's capitals. Currently, US and Cuban diplomats cannot leave the capitals.

Jacobson, the lead US negotiator with Cuba, said Washington also wanted assurances that Cubans would be able to visit the US embassy without being harassed by police and that there would be in an increase in US embassy personnel.

She acknowledged, however, that any the embassy would likely operate under restrictions similar to those in other countries run by authoritarian governments. China and Vietnam could serve as models for new rules governing US diplomats movements in Cuba.

One of the most contentious issues between the former Cold War adversaries is Washington's so-called pro-democracy programs for Cuba, which Castro argues are "illegal" and in breach of international treaties on diplomatic missions.

The US Interests Section in Havana offers Cubans free courses on journalism, English and information technology, and also allows Cubans to use the Internet.

In November 2012, the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the US Interests Section in Havana of "serving as headquarters of political subversion" against Cuba by creating an opposition movement and fomenting instability.

The talks are the first since Obama announced on April 14 that he had decided to remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Havana had said was a necessary step for further progress.

The Cubans have signaled that any formal announcement on the re-opening of embassies would likely have to wait until after the 45-day Congressional review period for removing Cuba from the terrorism list. Cuba considers May 29 as the date when the review period ends.

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