Top US diplomat says 'significant differences' with Cuba remain

Agence France-Presse
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of US-Cuban relations.
Win McNamee

Major differences remain between the United States and Cuba as they move to restore ties, especially on human rights, a top US official said Wednesday on the eve of new talks.

"Significant differences remain between our two governments," top US diplomat for Latin America Roberta Jacobson told US lawmakers.

"We continue to raise our concerns regarding democracy, human rights and freedom of expression," she said.

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But ahead of sitting down Thursday with a Cuban delegation for a fourth round of talks on ending decades of enmity, Jacobson insisted that Washington's policy was "a clear-eyed strategy that empowers the Cuban people to determine their own future by creating new economic opportunities and increasing their contact with the outside world."

After five months of negotiations, US officials say the two Cold War foes are closer to ending five decades of diplomatic hostilities and reopening embassies.

But Washington has certain demands, including that its diplomats be able to meet freely with dissidents on the communist-run island. Cuba for its part has been vocal in its opposition to US-funded democracy programs on the island.

The diplomatic push has been advancing since US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that the two countries would seek full diplomatic relations. They currently have downgraded ties and operate with just Interests Sections in each other's capital.

Castro and Obama also held a historic meeting in Panama in April on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Two key Cuban demands ahead of reopening embassies appear to have been almost met.

Obama has told Congress he intends to remove the Caribbean island from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Havana has now found a bank willing to handle its business on American soil.

"While progress has been made in our efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations, we are not there yet," Jacobson told the Senate foreign relations committee.

Americans diplomats on the Caribbean island continued to face "challenging circumstances," Jacobson said.

But she stressed that Washington would meet with a broad section of Cubans "to gain their perspectives on the best way forward for the country."