U.S. sets date for talks with Cuba

The State Department will send a high level delegation to Cuba later this month to open talks on normalizing diplomatic relations, which were severed more than five decades ago.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead the U.S. delegation to Havana on Jan. 21 and 22, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The two countries had already planned talks on migration “to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration between the United States and Cuba,” Psaki said. But President Barack Obama’s decision last month to restore diplomatic ties between the two countries will also be on the agenda.

The topics are likely to include the reopening of embassies, embassy operations and staffing, and visa issues, Psaki said.

She characterized the talks as the beginning of a discussion and declined to provide a timeline for restablishing full ties.

Jacobson last month suggested that it wouldn‘t take very long to set up an embassy, calling the process of restoring diplomatic ties between the former adversaries “relatively straightforward.”

The announcement came as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hailed the launch of an agricultural coalition that hopes to convince Congress to lift the congressionally-imposed trade embargo that growers and ranchers say makes it difficult to do business in Cuba.

Vilsack said Obama had done as much as he could to open up Cuba, saying his changes will remove “technical barriers” and make U.S. products more competitive.

“But there are still legislative hurdles to cross,” he said.

He argued that more U.S. agriculture products in Cuba could prompt societal change, citing former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to an Iowa farm.

"I have no doubt that as we expand opportunity to introduce American products to the Cuban market Cubans will begin to ask some serious questions about their system," Vilsack said.

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week told reporters that he doesn’t believe the embargo is working.

“This is a policy... that has not yielded the result we had hoped it would yield, obviously. I think that’s pretty apparent,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. said in conference call with reporters, according to Gannet newspapers.