US wants end to travel curbs, set up embassy in Cuba talks

US wants end to travel curbs, set up embassy in Cuba talks
File photo of U.S. President Obama greeting Cuban President Castro at the memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg.

WASHINGTON/HAVANA - The United States will urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions on US diplomats and agree to opening embassies in historic talks on restoring relations this week in Havana, a senior State Department official said on Monday.

The talks will be led by Roberta Jacobson, the top US diplomat for Latin America, in the first visit to Cuba in 38 years by a US assistant secretary of state.

"We are looking forward to the Cubans lifting travel restrictions," the official told reporters, referring to curbs that mean US diplomats are typically not allowed outside Havana. The same applies to Cuban officials in Washington.

The official said Washington hoped to restore its embassy in Havana in "the coming months." After the United States broke ties with Cuba in 1961, the six-story building was closed, although it was later converted into the US interests sections in 1977.

"It is hard to know exactly what will come out of this first conversation," the official said, referring to the talks set for Wednesday and Thursday. "I am not oblivious to the weight of history."

President Barack Obama reset Cuba policy on Dec 17, opting for engagement after more than five decades US hostility toward the island nation's communist government.

Washington and Havana held 18 months of secret talks before announcing they would re-establish diplomatic ties and exchange prisoners.

Among those released was foreign aid contractor Alan Gross, who spent five years in a Cuban prison for importing illegal communications equipment while on a mission for the US Agency for International Development.

Gross will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama when her husband delivers the annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, an indication the president will discuss Cuba policy in his speech.

Four Democratic senators and two congressmen on Monday concluded a three-day visit to Cuba, the first since Obama's policy shift. They met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and anti-government dissidents, among others, but not President Raul Castro.

"I think he (Rodriguez) is open to every single issue from trade to communications to establishing relations in agriculture," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and leader of the delegation, told reporters in Havana.

"Name an issue. They're involved. It's not like we're negotiating with countries we've been at war with," Leahy said.

The Democrats noted that opinion polls show Americans favour Obama's shift but that, in the words of Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, it would be a "heavy lift" to convince a Republican-controlled Congress to formally lift the US trade embargo.

In a letter to Obama on Monday, a group of 78 policy experts and former US officials urged the administration to work with Congress to update Cuba legislation.

The State Department official said the hope was to accelerate the pace of negotiations with Cuba after this week's meeting to include other areas such as settlement of property claims by Cuban Americans and US businesses whose assets were confiscated after Cuba's 1959 revolution.

In initial moves, Cuba has released 53 political prisoners and the United States said it would ease some trade and investment restrictions.

Washington has said it will press Cuba to release more political prisoners and end short-term detentions. In the past Cuba has rejected US lecturing on human rights, and it dismisses the dissidents as US-backed mercenaries.

"This is going to be an ongoing issue and we should always bring it up," Leahy said.

The State Department official said Obama's new policy depends on "mutual consent" between the United States and Cuba.

The first day of talks will focus on migration issues, including cases of Americans who have fled to Cuba. Castro's government has regularly returned US fugitives since 2008 but US authorities say dozens remain.

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