Cuba-U.S. trade talks encouraging; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio vows to work against it

WASHINGTON-- U.S. and Cuban negotiators talked for several hours Thursday before deciding to continue the talks Friday, perhaps an indication that the two sides are nearing the finish line on renewing diplomatic relations and opening embassies.

In its Twitter feed, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said advances had been made, and almost a dozen journalists from major media in Cuba were in Washington to cover the talks, another indication expectations were high.

Cuban journalists attended the White House daily briefing Thursday, and a reporter from Cuban National Television asked about the possibility of seeing President Barack Obama in Havana before 2016.

“I know that he would relish the opportunity to visit the island of Cuba, and Havana in particular,” said Josh Earnest, White House press secretary.

“I think both presidents are operating against a clock. They want to get this done and the negotiators are working through the issues,” said Julia Sweig, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas Austin. She briefed the Cuban journalists earlier in the week.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Republicans, have vowed they won’t even let an ambassadorial nominee for a U.S. embassy in Cuba come up for a vote. Obama could make a recess appointment this summer, which would avoid a procedural filibuster in the Senate.

Seated around a U-shaped table facing each other, U.S. and Cuban negotiators began their fourth round of talks shortly after 9 a.m. and concluded for the day around 5:30 p.m.

Delegations led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s U.S. division, smiled but didn't speak with reporters as they settled into the negotiating room.

The talks are part of a shift in Cuba policy outlined Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama, who said that more than a half century of isolating Cuba wasn’t working, and that the best way to bring about change on the island was through engagement and support of the Cuban people.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a Cuban reporter at the daily press briefing Thursday that the president “would relish the opportunity” to visit Cuba before the end of his term.

Going into the talks, Cuba said progress on two key issues — the pending removal of Cuba from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism and getting a bank to handle the accounts for its diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations — had created a favorable atmosphere for progress.

Since March 2104, the missions haven’t had a bank and have had to operate on a money order and cash basis for everything from receiving visa and passport fees to paying bills.

Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank confirmed Thursday that it had agreed to begin handling accounts for the Cuban Interests Section and its employees at the request of the State Department.

“The adoption of banking services will ease the burden on the Cuban Interests Section in terms of issuing travel visas and other functions associated with any embassy in Washington, D.C.,” said David Seleski, Stonegate’s president and chief executive.

“We hope this is the initial step to normalize banking ties between the two countries, which will benefit American companies wanting to do business in Cuba as well as the Cuban people.”

Stonegate, which says its goal is to be the “private bank for business,” has $2.2 billion in assets and 21 Florida branches.

“I’m sure it was selected because of the large number of Cuban travel operators and cruise lines in this town,” said Andy Gomez, a Miami Cuba specialist.

Some travel operators were relieved that a new bank had been selected.

“It most definitely will make life easier,” said Vivian Mannerud, the owner of Airline Brokers, which provides travel services to Cuba. “The bank should be applauded for stepping up to the plate and everyone who does business with Cuba should open an account. It's going to alleviate everyone's business tenfold.”

Cruise lines sailing from South Florida have expressed interest in offering Cuban itineraries once the embargo is lifted. Recently, the United States issued licenses for ferry service between Florida and Cuba.

Cuba is set to come off the terrorism list at the end of May after notification is published in the Federal Register. As long as it has remained there, banks have been wary of handling Cuban accounts because of possible regulatory penalties related to sanctioned countries.

In 1982, Cuba was added to the list for its role in helping Marxist insurgencies around the Americas. Iran, Sudan and Syria also are on the list.

For the United States, key issues in this round were the ability of U.S. diplomats to freely travel across Cuba and talk to dissidents and democracy activists, and guarantees of non-interference with shipments to a future embassy and with visiting Cuban citizens.

They must now go through a checkpoint manned by Cuban guards, which the United States believes may deter some visits.

In response to another question from the Cuban journalist at the White House briefing, Earnest said: “We would welcome the opportunity for U.S. diplomats to engage more freely with the Cuban people, including Cuban citizens living outside of Havana.” He said that included Cubans who “may not be a part of or even supportive of the Cuban government.”

“We continue to have significant concerns about the way that the Cuban government all too often fails to respect the basic universal human rights that we hold so dear in this country. There are too many Cuban political activists, Cuban journalists who see their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, their freedom of expression trampled by the Cuban government.”

Going into these talks, the United States and Cuba didn’t even agree on which round of negotiations was taking place. The United States referred to Thursday’s negotiations as the fourth round. For Cuba, it was the third round of talks with a March 16 visit to Havana by Jacobson counted as a follow-up rather than a full-fledged round of negotiations.

A contingent of Cuban journalists was in Washington for the talks and they worked out of a press center set up for them at the Cuban Interests Section.

The first round of the historic conversations was held Jan. 22 in Havana.

South Florida Republicans in Congress continued to voice objections to the talks.

“No matter how much the administration wants to spin these talks as ‘progress,’ the irrefutable fact is that the Cuban people are no better off today than the day before Obama’s announcement,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

“Negotiating with a tyrannical regime or opening an embassy may make for big headlines but it does not advance the cause of freedom nor help the Cuban people exercise their basic human rights.”

On Wednesday, the anniversary of Cuba’s independence from Spain, Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart faulted the Obama administration for making too many concessions to the Cubans during the negotiations without getting more assurances on human rights.

In addition to taking Cuba off the terrorism list, Obama also has made it easier for Americans to travel to the island and liberalized trade. — even though the embargo remains in place. U.S. telecom companies, for example, can now offer services and sell products in Cuba and even strike deals with state-run companies in Cuba to improve Internet service and telecom infrastructure.

“Despite President Obama’s countless and shameful concessions to the Castro regime, the American people and the Congress continue to stand with them,” Diaz-Balart said. “Cuba has the worst human rights record in our hemisphere and has done nothing to earn the many concessions that the Obama administration continues to provide the regime.”

During testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week, Jacobson said that the new approach on Cuba is already starting to provide “space for other nations in the hemisphere and around the world to focus on promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba and elsewhere in the region.”

“More Americans are traveling to the island, getting past the rhetoric, meeting Cubans and building shared understanding between our people,” she said.

“With Congress’ lock on the embargo, diplomatic relations grows in importance as the number of doable achievements on the administration’s checklist shrinks,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. “If successful, U.S. negotiator and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson will be in the crosshairs of the small but vocal group of skeptics in the U.S. Congress that believe — no matter what — that Cuba will get far more out of the deal than the United States.”

“Eventually, it will have to come back to the Senate,” said Gomez. The recess appointment is only valid for the current session of Congress.