The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in more than three decades said Friday that two days of talks on re-establishing full diplomatic relations had left her with no sense of whether the new U.S. policy of engagement would achieve its goal of generating reforms that benefit the Cuban people.
The Obama administration says the goal of its Cuban policy remains the same: creating more freedoms for ordinary Cubans. Cuban diplomats said throughout the negotiations in Havana that the U.S. needs to abandon hopes of using closer relations to foment change on the island. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson told reporters Friday that the talks had left her with no clearer idea of whether Obama's new policy has good prospects of success.
"It's very hard to say exactly how this will work," Jacobson said. "We think that we need to make decisions in our own interest and take decision that are to going to empower the Cuban people but the verdict on whether that succeeds is still to be made."
The United States and Cuba both reported progress toward restoring diplomatic ties after a half-century of estrangement. But it wasn't immediately clear whether the human rights issue, which has previously blocked closer U.S.-Cuban relations, would pose a threat to the new diplomatic process.
"Cuba has never responded to pressure," Josefina Vidal, the country's top diplomat for U.S. affairs, told reporters Thursday night.
The comments by Jacobson and Vidal lay bare the pressures each side faces at home — the U.S., from Republican leaders in Congress and powerful Cuban-American groups, and Cuba, from hardliners deeply concerned that rapprochement could undermine the communist system founded by Fidel Castro.
Earlier in the week, Jacobson hailed the talks as "positive and productive," focusing on the mechanics of converting interest sections into full-fledged embassies headed by ambassadors. But she also spoke of "profound differences" separating the two governments and said embassies by themselves would not mean normalized ties.
Along with human rights, Cuba outlined other obstacles in the relationship. Vidal demanded that Cuba be taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, she praised Obama for easing the U.S. trade embargo and urging the U.S. Congress to lift it entirely.
"It was a first meeting. This is a process," Vidal said. In the next weeks, she said, the U.S. and Cuba will schedule a second round of talks, which may or may not be the time to finalize an agreement.
Issues on Thursday's agenda included ending caps on staff, limits on diplomats' movements and, in the case of the U.S. building, removing guard posts and other Cuban structures along the perimeter.
Earlier, the two countries disputed whether human rights had even been discussed at all. Jacobson said the U.S. raised it in the morning meeting; Vidal said it had not come up.
Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy chief of North American affairs, later said the delegations spent time in an afternoon session discussing U.S. human rights problems — a reference to recent police killings of black men in Missouri and New York. Cuban state media said the Cuban delegation also complained about the detention of prisoners at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay.
A U.S. official said the difference in Jacobson's statements was unintentional and that the English version — that the U.S "pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression" — reflected the delegation's position.
The U.S. and Cuba also talked about human trafficking, environmental protection, American rules to allow greater telecommunications exports to Cuba and how to coordinate responses to oil spills or Ebola outbreaks.
The need for at least one future round of talks could set back U.S. hopes of reopening the embassies before April's Summit of the Americas, which Obama and Castro are expected to attend.
Still, after so many years of mutual suspicion, each side stressed the importance of the collegial atmosphere in Havana that included long working lunches and a dinner together.