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More tough talks ahead as U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations

A flag pin worn by a member of a U.S. Senate delegation in Havana, Cuba, represents the two countries moving toward normalizing relations. Much work remains to be done. Embassies are to be reopened July 20.
A flag pin worn by a member of a U.S. Senate delegation in Havana, Cuba, represents the two countries moving toward normalizing relations. Much work remains to be done. Embassies are to be reopened July 20. AP

July 20 is the date when the United States and Cuba officially restore diplomatic ties. But that moment, historic as it is after a break of more than five decades, doesn’t mean the tough conversations are over.

Full normalization between the two longtime foes will be a gradual process that unfolds through many more rounds of technical, nitty-gritty negotiations, Cuba analysts say. Diplomats already have begun talks on some of the thorniest matters, from mutual accusations of human rights violations to billions of dollars in unresolved legal claims.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, this week described “specialized conversations on various themes that have to now move forward.”

“Each of those is kind of getting you one step closer to a more normal relationship,” the official said.

Here are some of the lingering issues:

Fugitives

Some 70 U.S. fugitives are believed to be living in Cuba, and their fates could change as part of the restored U.S.-Cuba relations. U.S. authorities are leaning on the Castro government to extradite the wanted men and women, starting with the two most prominent:

Assata Shakur, the former Joanne Chesimard, a convicted murderer and former Black Panther who was granted political asylum in Cuba after she escaped in 1979 from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence.

William Guillermo Morales, a militant Puerto Rican separatist who slipped out of police custody at a hospital in New York in 1979 and is believed to have been in Cuba since 1988. In the United States, Morales was sentenced to 99 years in prison in connection with two deadly explosions in New York during the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government is also seeking a return of its own fugitives, with Luis Posada Carriles at the top of the list. Cuba and Venezuela blame him for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people as well as the 1997 bombings of two Havana hotels. He’s reportedly living openly in Florida after he was acquitted in Texas in 2011 on charges he lied to U.S. immigration officials about his role in the 1997 bombings.

Talks on extradition are said to be intensifying, though it’s unclear what will happen with a prisoner such as Shakur – Cuba has maintained that it has a right as a sovereign nation to offer political asylum. In April, the National Security Council spokeswoman at the time, Bernadette Meehan, said that “the return from Cuba of fugitives from U.S. justice is an issue of longstanding concern to the United States that will be addressed in the broader context of normalizing relations.”

Human rights

U.S. officials and lawmakers continue to raise concerns about human rights in Cuba. The State Department’s latest human rights report on Cuba, released last month, said the main abuses were “the abridgement of the ability of citizens to change the government” (the Castros have been in power since 1959) as well as harsh treatment for dissidents: “the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical assault, intimidation, violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent, and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

The list goes on and on – restricted Internet access for example, or lack of recognition for independent human rights groups and labor unions – but U.S. officials also have noted that Cuba released 53 political prisoners from its jails as a gesture of goodwill shortly before and after the rapprochement was announced.

On the Cuban side, Havana has bashed the United States over detentions at Guantanamo Bay, “police abuse” as exemplified in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities, and racial and gender inequalities.

Telecommunications

A telecommunications opening, announced last December as part of the White House’s plan to renew diplomatic relations with Havana, allows U.S. companies to sell personal communications equipment in Cuba, as well as to work on side projects to improve Cuba’s outdated Internet and telecom infrastructure.

President Barack Obama offered a similar plan in 2009 but it went nowhere, because there was no big push to restore relations, and the telecom regulations weren’t clear on matters such as how close a U.S. cable could get to Cuban territory. This time, however, there’s interest from both sides, along with clearer regulations.

In February, the Newark, N.J.-based IDT Corp. became the first company to strike a long-distance deal with Cuba and is now handling direct calls to the country; previously, U.S. carriers had to use a non-U.S. carrier for the final connection. In June, Google executives visited the island with a plan to greatly expand Internet access, but it’s unclear whether the Cuban government wants to go forward with the proposal.

Talks remain underway as U.S. officials and investors push to see how far Havana will go with the opening. Analysts have said that the rules must be clearly spelled out, making explicit, for example, whether U.S. companies are able to set up a storefront for cellphones and other consumer communications equipment and franchise such operations to Cuban entrepreneurs.

Legal claims

Outstanding legal claims – to the tune of billions of dollars – make up one of the biggest, most complicated hurdles to full normalization.

Since 1964, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an independent branch of the Justice Department, has recognized 5,913 claims against Cuba over the seizure of American-owned property after the revolution. The claims were worth about $1.9 billion at the time; today, they total about $7 billion with interest adjustment.

While the bulk of the claims come from individuals, the biggest are held by companies: a $71 million loss suffered by the then-Exxon Corp. over the expropriation of an oil refinery and a $167 million claim by the Cuban Electric Co. That claim now belongs to Office Depot Inc. because of corporate acquisitions, Bloomberg reported last year.

Under U.S. law, the embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted until a set conditions is met, including the settlement of the U.S. legal claims. With no conceivable way for the impoverished nation to issue such huge payouts in a lump sum, Cuba analysts say, diplomats are likely searching for some other, longer-term agreement.

On the Cuban side, there’s the matter of a lawsuit filed against the United States in 1999 holding the U.S. embargo responsible for devastating Cuba’s economy. The status of the lawsuit is unclear.

Health cooperation

During the recent Ebola epidemic, the Obama administration took the unusual step of publicly praising Cuba’s response to the crisis, joining global health officials who lauded Havana for acting particularly quickly to dispatch top doctors to help contain the spread of the disease. Cuban doctors and nurses even staffed a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Ebola treatment center in Liberia.

Health officials in both countries look forward to more such partnerships as normalization progresses. The medical journal Health Affairs identified four key areas “that can bring mutual gain in improving lives and advancing knowledge:” long-range research and scientific partnerships in biotechnology, vaccines and tropical medicine; U.S. private-sector help to modernize Cuba’s health care system, lessons from Cuba in preventive medicine and primary care in “resource-constrained settings;” and U.S.-Cuban collaborations in responding to overseas health emergencies as well as assisting low-income countries to build affordable basic health services.

Whitefield reports for The Miami Herald.

Hannah Allam: hallam@mcclatchydc.com, 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

Mimi Whitefield: mwhitefield@MiamiHerald.com

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