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US/Cuba talks take off and are described as “productive and constructive”

Thursday, January 22nd 2015 - 06:26 UTC
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“Cuba aspires to have a normal relationship with the United States, in the broader sense but also in the area of migration”, pointed out Ms Vidal “Cuba aspires to have a normal relationship with the United States, in the broader sense but also in the area of migration”, pointed out Ms Vidal
Clear differences remain, but “the United States and Cuba can find opportunities to advance our mutually shared interests” Lee said after the talks. Clear differences remain, but “the United States and Cuba can find opportunities to advance our mutually shared interests” Lee said after the talks.
Russian spy ship docked in Havana Russian spy ship docked in Havana

US and Cuban officials launched historic talks to shed their Cold War-era hostility on Wednesday, complimenting each other on the first day's progress despite persistent differences over migration policy.

 Each side described the first of two days of talks as productive and constructive even though they remained deeply at odds over the exodus of Cubans to the United States.

The meetings in Havana follow the historic decision by US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro in December to seek normal ties.

Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, landed in Havana around midday to participate in Thursday's talks on reopening embassies and returning ambassadors for the first time since 1961.

She is the highest-ranking US official to set foot in Cuba since 1980.

Her deputy, Alex Lee, represented the US side on the first day in Havana's Convention Center, sitting across from the head of the Cuban foreign ministry's US affairs department, Josefina Vidal.

“The productive and collaborative nature of today's discussion proves that despite the clear differences that remain between our countries, the United States and Cuba can find opportunities to advance our mutually shared interests,” Lee said after the talks.

For her part, Vidal said: “Cuba aspires to have a normal relationship with the United States, in the broader sense but also in the area of migration.”

But Vidal criticized US migration policies which she said encourage a brain drain, saying that they “don't correspond with the current bilateral context of relations between Cuba and the United States.”

On the eve of the talks, Obama urged the Congress to end the decades-long embargo against Cuba, which the Castro regime has blamed for the country's economic woes.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech late Tuesday.

“When what you have done doesn't work for fifty years. It's time to try something new.”

A Cuban foreign ministry official sought to downplay expectations of major breakthroughs this week.

“We can't expect that everything will be resolved in one meeting,” the official said, according to state media, adding that normalizing ties was “a much longer and complex process.”

The migration talks tackled an issue that has vexed both nations for years, with Cubans regularly hopping on rickety boats to reach Florida, 145 kilometers (90 miles) away.

US policies gives Cubans who set foot in the United States quick access to permanent residency while those caught at sea are deported back to their island.

The United States has seen a surge of Cuban migrants who apparently fear that the US-Cuba negotiations will end the policy. The number of sea intercepts doubled in December compared to the previous year.

But Lee said the Obama administration was “completely committed” to upholding the current rules.

For Thursday's embassy talks, the US side wants Cuba to reaccredit its diplomats, lift travel restrictions for them within the island, ease shipments to the US mission and lift a cap on personnel.

Both nations currently have “interests sections” in each other's capitals.

In a throwback to Cold War days, a Russian spy ship docked in Havana on the eve of the talks.

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