The U.S. and Cuba may have a comprehensive wish list of outstanding issues that need addressing, but the main purpose of this week’s historic talks is to begin working out the details that will allow for the restoration of full diplomatic relations.
Despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties, American and Cuban officials have met and discussed several issues for years.
But what makes these talks this week, the so-called migration talks that occur twice a year, so noteworthy is that they will be attended by Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the first time someone of this rank has attended these meetings since 1977.
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They will also have a different goal from talks of the past — to restore diplomatic relations.
Lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba or eliminating the U.S. travel ban are possibly years from being settled.
Those issues must be dealt with by Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, who are unlikely to budge any time soon.
But other issues related to the normalization process of restoring diplomatic relations, like establishing embassies and lifting the travel restrictions on diplomats in either country, will be on the table.
Both U.S. and Cuba have maintained lower-level missions in each other’s capitals. American diplomats work out of the seven-storey U.S. Interests Section in Havana (the former U.S. embassy before the Cuban revolution), while Cuba’s interests section is a stately manor in D.C.
"We may not have a huge number of conversations before we are able to move towards embassies, elevating our institutions to embassies," said a senior state department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. "But it’s hard to know exactly what issues the Cuban government may come to the table with."
Travel restrictions on diplomats
Currently, American diplomats are limited in where they can travel around the island, while Cuban diplomats can’t travel beyond the U.S. beltway without permission.
"How forthcoming will Cuba be, where the Cubans decide U.S. diplomats should be allowed to travel freely around the island? Will they have better access to ordinary Cubans as well as the Cuban officials? Do the Cubans really want to move toward what [one] would think of as normal relations?" asks Richard Feinberg, professor of international political economy at UC San Diego.
The U.S. will also seek to gain unimpeded shipments and free access by Cubans to their mission, and to lift the caps on the number of diplomatic personnel.
That tight cap has "always been justified on grounds of national security, because they were out to undermine [the Cubans]. That was the argument. In a more normal relationship they should be less anxious," Feinberg said.
U.S. criminals in Cuba
Some of the outstanding migration issues are unlikely to be resolved. On the U.S. side, officials will likely raise the problem of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, which has co-operated in returning common criminals back to the U.S.
But the Cuban government has been unresponsive in returning those fugitives who are believed to have been given political asylum, like Joanne Chesimard, convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.
"Cubans point out that we’ve given political asylum to people who have committed acts of terrorism in Cuba," said William LeoGrande, professor of government at the school of public affairs at American University, specializing in U.S.-Latin American relations. "The U.S. will raise it because we always do, but I don't think that will go anywhere."
Trying to scrap the Cuban Adjustment Act
Meanwhile, Cubans will try to get the U.S. to scrap the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans the right to automatically get permanent residency and a path to citizenship after a year in the U.S.
"They feel it creates an incentive for human trafficking," said LeoGrande, who also coauthored Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. "If a Cuban can get to the U.S., they’re home free."
Cuban-Americans have been spending thousands of dollars to pay for the passage of their relatives from Cuba by fast boats to Mexico, then up though Mexico to the Texas border where they present themselves seeking asylum, LeoGrande said.
"[The Cubans] will raise that issue," he said. "The U.S. has not typically been willing to talk about it, but it's a real problem, it would be a big political step for the administration to change the Cuban Adjustment Act, so I don't expect them to change it anytime soon."
Restoration of postal service
LeoGrande said there could also be some progress, and perhaps an announcement, on the restoration of postal service, suspended between the two countries since 1963.
Mail flows between the U.S and the island through other countries, such as Canada, Mexico and Panama.
LeoGrande added there could also be some kind of deal on anti-narcotics co-operation.