HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States said it pressed Cuba to improve human rights during historic, high-level talks on Thursday, annoying the Cubans after both sides reported making progress toward restoring diplomatic relations.
The talks were the first since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they would work to restore diplomatic ties, which Washington severed in 1961 two years after Raul’s brother Fidel took power and began implementing communist rule.
“As a central element of our policy, we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression and assembly,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the head of the delegation, said in a written statement.
Obama needs the Republican-controlled Congress to completely normalize relations with Cuba, and Republicans such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio have opposed engagement as long as Cuba maintains a one-party state, represses dissidents and controls the media.
The U.S. statement was issued near the end of two days of talks on a host of issues including the restoration of diplomatic ties.
Cuba, always sensitive to U.S. efforts to infringe on its sovereignty or meddle in its internal affairs, took the word “pressed” as less than diplomatic. The Spanish version of the U.S. statement used language that could be interpreted as “pressured.”
“I can confirm that the word ‘pressure’ was not used. I must say it’s not a word that is used in these types of conversations,” Josefina Vidal, the head of the Cuban delegation, told reporters.
Turning the table on the Americans, Cuba earlier had expressed concern over human rights in the United States, a reference to recent police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
With each side working under instructions from their respective presidents, both sides stressed that the conversations were respectful and constructive.
Illustrating the benefits to the Cuban economy of improved relations, Moody’s credit rating agency said the easing of U.S. restrictions was “credit positive” for Cuba.
Jacobson said re-establishing diplomatic ties was “not overly cumbersome.”
But Jacobson also cautioned that any major breakthrough would depend on overcoming more than 50 years of mistrust between countries that remained adversaries for decades after events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Jacobson’s visit marks the first time in 38 years that a U.S. official of her rank has visited Cuba.
“We have ... to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust, so there are things we have to discuss before we can establish that relationship and so there will be future conversations,” Jacobson said.
Vidal declined to say if Cuba trusted the United States more after 18 months of secret talks that led to this first encounter, in which the two negotiating teams shared several meals in between hours of closed-door meetings.
“I have confidence in a better future for our countries,” Vidal said.
“We are neighbors. We have profound differences ... but we have seen in the world that countries with profound differences can coexist peacefully and in a civilized way,” she said.
Chief among the differences is the comprehensive U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Obama has loosened the embargo and asked Congress to start lifting it.
Cuba also told the Americans it wants to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In immigration talks on Wednesday, Cuba deplored the U.S. granting safe haven to Cubans with special protections denied to other nationalities, while the Americans vowed to stand by the so-called Cuban Adjustment Act.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Daniel Trotta and Rosa Tania Valdés; Editing by Peter Galloway, Alan Crosby, Andre Grenon and Lisa Shumaker