Cuba-US warming, hopes of opening embassy, held up by fight over Cuba on terror list

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FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2015 file photo, a Cuban and U.S. flag stand before the start of a press conference on the sidelines of talks between the two nations in Havana, Cuba. The U.S. hopes to open an embassy in Havana before presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet at a regional summit in April, which will be the scene of the presidents’ first face-to-face meeting since they announced on Dec. 17 that they will re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century of hostility. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)


HAVANA — American hopes of opening an embassy in Havana before presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet at a regional summit this week have been snarled in disputes about Cuba's presence on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror and U.S. diplomats' freedom to travel and talk to ordinary Cubans without restriction, officials say.

The Summit of the Americas will be the scene of the presidents' first face-to-face meeting since they announced Dec. 17 that they will re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century of hostility. The Obama administration wanted the embassies reopened before the summit starts in Panama on Friday, boosting a new American policy motivated partly by a sense that isolating Cuba was causing friction with other countries in the region.

Arriving at the summit with a deal to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana would create goodwill for the U.S., particularly after it issued new sanctions on selected Venezuelan officials last month that prompted protests from left-leaning countries around the hemisphere.

Negotiators on both sides said they are confident they will be able to strike a deal to reopen embassies in the coming weeks but not necessarily before the summit.

"It's not a lot of time, let's put it that way," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing on Friday when asked whether an agreement on embassies was likely before the gathering in Panama City.

Asked Monday about the latest on the embassies, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that "when you have a country that has essentially been ostracized by the United States for five decades ... it's going to take a little bit of time to re-establish some trust."

"When you consider the 50-year history between our two countries, three months doesn't seem very long," Earnest said, referring to the December announcement.

The U.S. and Cuba have held three rounds of talks about restoring diplomatic relations. Cuba's main demand is to be removed from the terror list, a Cold War-era designation that isolates it from much of the world financial system because banks fear repercussions from doing business with designated countries. Even Cuba's Interests Section in Washington has lost its bank in the U.S., forcing it to deal in cash.

Washington has long since stopped accusing Havana of supporting terrorism and Obama made clear in December that he intends to remove Cuba from the list. But U.S. officials said the president must first send Congress a report that says Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months and has assured the United States that it will not support terrorism in the future.

The terror list is a particularly charged issue for Cuba because of the U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.

Officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that the demand for assurances there will be no future terror support has led Cuba to reiterate its own past allegations about U.S. involvement in terrorism against the island, and issue a reciprocal demand that the United States pledge to not support such attacks in the future.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations.

Despite the delay in reopening the embassies, both sides appear optimistic they can reach agreement on the terror issue in the near future. The United States and Cuba still have to resolve a demand by Washington that its diplomats be allowed to operate like those from any other country once the U.S. Interests Section in Havana becomes a full embassy. American diplomats currently must obtain permission from the Cuban government to travel outside Havana and Cubans must register with Cuban guards before entering the building, a measure the United States says is aimed at dissuading dissidents from contacts with U.S. officials.

The officials said it appeared unlikely that Washington would strike Cuba from the terror list without assurances from Castro's government that it will allow the future U.S. embassy to operate with fewer restrictions, a sensitive issue for Cuba because it would allow more American contact with dissidents whom the communist government sees as U.S.-backed mercenaries. Other issues include caps on the number of diplomats at the embassy and restrictions on U.S. imports of products ranging from office supplies to household goods.

Cuban insistence on the continued restrictions on freedom of movement by U.S. diplomats could force the Obama administration into tough decisions about what limits it is willing to accept in order to have an embassy in Cuba.

Domestic politics are also fueling U.S. caution in the talks. While Congress cannot permanently block Cuba's removal from the list, the Obama administration will have to defend its decision in public hearings heading into a presidential campaign season. Republican candidate Ted Cruz and likely candidate Marco Rubio have family ties to Cuba and object to normalization with the Castro government.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Obama's head of Western Hemisphere affairs, has said Obama and Castro will have some personal interaction during their stay in Panama, although no formal bilateral meetings had been announced as of Monday. Jacobson also told a forum last week on U.S. business opportunities in Cuba that the terror review "is in very advanced stages and we will try to get that done as quickly as possible."

"One of the reasons that things are taking a while is that we need certain things to run an embassy," she added. "That is one of the most important things in our conversations."

Asked about the status of the negotiations, the U.S. State Department said Friday that the review of Cuba's inclusion on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list was still underway. A Cuban government spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name said that the country had not been asked to make any public declaration about future support for terrorism. He declined to comment further on the discussions.

U.S.-Cuba experts hope progress comes quickly.

"I think it would be smart on both sides to show continued momentum, to demonstrate that the instructions given by the president on Dec. 17 will be faithfully and promptly carried out by their negotiators," said Richard Feinberg, a senior director of the National Security Council's Office of Inter-American Affairs under President Bill Clinton.


Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Havana and Bradley Klapper reported from Washington.


Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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