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Obama's Top Negotiator In Cuba Says Human Rights, Private Sector Will Be U.S. Drumbeat

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State Department
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Here’s one indicator of how much things have changed between the United States and Cuba:

When President Obama announced last month that he planned to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba’s communist regime after a half-century of bitter estrangement, no one heard from former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. And no one really cared.

Here’s another:

Days after U.S. and Cuban negotiators wrapped up the first round of historic normalization talks in Havana last week, Fidel finally broke his silence this week and announced in a letter that he approves of mending fences with los yanquis. And no one really cared.

RELATED: Now Starts The Hard Part Of Pulling The U.S. And Cuba Out Of Their Cold-War Time Warp

Fidel’s irrelevance – and the waning clout of Cuban exile leaders who oppose any engagement with the revolution Fidel founded 56 years ago – have cast a brighter spotlight on normalization’s two top negotiators: Roberta Jacobson, assistant U.S. secretary of state for the western hemisphere, and Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s head of North American affairs.

On both sides of the Florida Straits, Jacobson and Vidal became the new and more amiable faces of U.S.-Cuba relations last week – a fact perhaps best captured in a moment Jacobson shared last weekend with journalists from the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and WLRN:

On her way to Havana, Jacobson says she was taken aback to hear a baggage handler at Miami International Airport tell her, “It’s an honor to wrap the plastic around your suitcase for this trip you’re making.” What made the remark more significant, she adds, is that the handler was a Cuban-American.

It made her “really the feel the weight of people’s hopes and expectations,” she says. “You don’t want to let them down.”

Human rights is the area of the most profound disagreement. - Roberta Jacobson

Polls do show about half of Cuban-Americans in Miami support normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. But Jacobson also says the hopes and expectations have to be tempered – because last week’s opening talks also confirmed that ending this cold war will be a long process.

“I think we need to be careful,” Jacobson told us. “We need to be optimistic but very realistic.”

On one level, the normalization negotiations are about diplomatic nuts and bolts – like opening embassies, or in this case “making sure that Cubans have access to our embassy in a much more unimpeded fashion,” says Jacobson.

But on another level, they’re a chance for each country to signal its larger priorities. For the U.S., that starts with improving human rights in Cuba – or getting Cuba to admit it even has a human rights problem.

“That’s the area of the most profound disagreement,” Jacobson says.

Last week, Coral Gables Mayor James Cason – the former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba – told me how the Cubans would probably respond when that issue was brought up at the normalization talks:

“They will say, ‘We don’t have any human rights problems, you’ve got Ferguson, you should pay attention to your problems.’”

And as predicted, that’s exactly what Josefina Vidal said she told Jacobson and the Americans at the table last week.

“It’s Cuba that’s worried about the exercise of human rights in the United States,” she said.

SUBSTANTIVE DEBATE

Even before last week, Jacobson and Vidal had built a fairly friendly working relationship. But Jacobson says that kind of Cuban grandstanding won’t fly that well at a more formal dialogue the two countries are planning to hold soon specifically on human rights.

“It is one of the issues on which we’re going to have experts sit down and actually have the more substantive debate,” says Jacobson.

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Credit Desmon Boylan / AP
Cuba's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, speaks during a briefing after taking part in talks with the U.S. representatives, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.

  This April, for the first time ever, Cuba is invited to the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama. Jacobson says another test for Cuban leader Raúl Castro will be whether he allows the island’s dissidents to be there too.

She also remarked on the big turnout of foreign diplomats at a reception hosted by the U.S. for Cuban dissidents last Friday at Havana.

“Much, much stronger than we’ve seen in the past,” she says. “There were more representatives from other embassies there with that dissident community than had been the case previously.”

Jacobson argues that’s because the new policy of engagement with Cuba will make other countries more willing to back up the U.S. in its efforts to reform Cuba.

But Jacobson seemed most impressed by the fledgling private entrepreneurs she met. It was her way of stressing President Obama’s belief that promoting a private sector in Cuba promotes a more independent civil society.

I asked Jacobson if she thought those new Cuban business owners see themselves as a sort of dissident group in their own right.

“I don’t think there’s a single one of them that would put it that way,” she says. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that they all see themselves demonstrating a different way of economic prosperity than a state-centered model.”

Toward that end, Vidal suggested last week Cuba would not block U.S. exports to those private businesses – including perhaps the most sensitive:

“We’re willing to let in U.S. telecommunications,” she told reporters, like cell phones and Internet equipment.

The Cubans have their own big-ticket demands, like lifting the U.S. trade embargo and taking Cuba off the list of countries that aid terrorism.

But at least Jacobson and Vidal got the talks – which are expected to start up again next month in Washington – on a path that’s solid enough to keep airport workers wrapping their suitcases.