After the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015, Cuba and the U.S. held closed-door discussions. Here is what was disclosed about those discussions at a joint press conference at the city’s Hotel Nacional by Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriquez and from other sources.
Guarded Optimism. Repeating his earlier remarks at the Embassy, Kerry said this was an historic moment as the two countries continued to engage in a cooperative way to address the many issues that had accumulated over the last 50 years. Rodriguez said essentially the same thing.
Empowerment of People. According to Kerry, normalization “will contribute to greater empowerment of . . . the Cuban people to be able to plug into the global economy, to be able to trade more, to be able to move and travel and enjoy the fruits of their labor, to be able to raise the standards of living, and therefore improve their lives.” It will “also help [U.S.] citizens . . . , including students, the private sector to be able to learn more about this country, to be able to establish friendships and connections that will last, hopefully, for a lifetime.”
Improved U.S. Relations with Western Hemisphere. Kerry said normalization “will also remove a source of irritation and division within the hemisphere.” At April’s Summit of the Americas, many countries said “how happy they are that finally the [U.S.] and Cuba are going to move to renew their relationship, because all of them were supportive of and encouraging us to take that kind of step.”
U.S. Embargo (Blockade) Issues. Rodriguez re-emphasized Cuba’s demands for the U.S. to end its embargo (blockade) of the island and for the U.S. to pay compensation for the alleged damages to the Cuban economy caused by that measure. Kerry agreed on the need to end the embargo and emphasized President Obama’s request for Congress to do just that.
According to Reuters and the Associated Press, this issue came up again at a meeting that evening with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the charge d’affaires. Kerry then said, “the U.S. Congress was unlikely to ever lift a punishing economic embargo on Cuba unless the Communist government improved its human rights [or civil liberties] record.” The AP quoted Kerry as saying, “There is no way Congress will lift the embargo if we are not making progress on issues of conscience.”
After there had been a report of those comments, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator in negotiations with the U.S., told Reuters, “Decisions on internal matters are not negotiable and will never be put on the negotiating agenda in conversations with the United States. Cuba will never do absolutely anything, not move one millimeter, to try to [obtain the end of the embargo (blockade).]”
U.S. Claims for Expropriated Property. Rodriguez said, “Cuban laws have foreseen the [need for] compensation to owners whose properties were nationalized in the 1960s. And all the owners were compensated in due time with exception of American citizens due to the circumstances . . . in the bilateral relations. I reiterate that the Cuban laws include the possibility to pay compensations.”
This point was reiterated later that day by Cuban diplomat, Josefina Vidal, who said that Cuba is willing to discuss the 5,913 claims from Americans whose properties were nationalized after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. A Cuban law, however, links negotiations on property claims to Cuba’s own claims for damages caused by the embargo and other U.S. aggressions.
Guantanamo Bay Issues. Rodriguez reiterated Cuba’s request or demand for the U.S. to return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. Kerry, however, said, “Now, at the moment, there is no current discussion or plan to change the arrangement with respect to Guantanamo, but I can’t tell you what will happen over the years in the future.”
Josefina Vidal stated that she receives the annual U.S. $4,085 rental checks for Guantanamo Bay, which Cuba refuses.to cash because it sees the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo as illegal. Instead each of the checks is stored in Cuban archives “like a historical document.”
Migration issues. According to Kerry, the U.S. supports “safe, legal, orderly migration from Cuba to the [U.S.]” and “full implementation of the existing migration accords with Cuba.” But the U.S. currently has “no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, and we have no plans to change the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy.”
Rodríguez responded: “migration waves of people escaping from poverty and military conflicts are well known. Fortunately this does not happen in the Latin America and the Caribbean region.” But we have “serious concerns about the migration processes from [Central American] countries affecting hundreds [of thousands] of small children [fleeing to the U.S.]”
Rodriguez continued, “Migration relations between the U.S. and Cuba . . . should not be politicized. They should be totally normal.” We agree to encourage the “safe and orderly migration between both countries. We also agree on the risks, the dangers, and the need to establish an international and bilateral cooperation against trafficking in persons [and related transnational organized crime].” Cuba also believes “the migration accords in force between the U.S. and Cuba should be strictly respected and that any policy or any practical action which is not in accordance with the spirit and language of the accords should be abolished.”  We believe that the freedom of travel is also a fundamental human right.”
U.S. Human Rights Problems. Rodriguez opened his comments at the press conference with complaints of U.S. human rights transgressions — from police shootings of black men to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base on Cuba that the government says must be returned. “Cuba isn’t a place where there’s racial discrimination, police brutality or deaths resulting from those problems,” Rodriguez said. “The territory where torture occurs and people are held in legal limbo isn’t under Cuban jurisdiction.”
U.S. Presidential Election of 2016. Kerry said he could not imagine “another president, Republican or Democrat, just throwing [the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and steps towards normalization] out the window.” In addition, Kerry thought “that people understand that over 54 years, we had a policy that was isolating us, not changing the world.”
Steering Committee. The two countries have established a steering committee or commission to address the many outstanding issues. This body will meet in Havana for the first time in the first or second week of September.
This body will follow three tracks. The first will encompass areas in which rapid progress is expected, such as cooperation on naval matters, climate change and the environment. The second will tackle more complex topics like the establishment of direct airline flights and U.S. telecommunications deals with Cuba. The last will take on the toughest problems, including the embargo, human rights and each country’s desire to have fugitives returned by the other.
The steering committee’s first tier of issues (the easiest ones) apparently will include agreements for civil aviation landing rights for each country’s airlines, direct mail, environmental protection and battling drug trafficking. (Indeed on August 17 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration was pushing for the airliner deal by the end of this year.)
The third tier of issues (the most difficult) apparently will include ending the U.S. embargo (blockade), which is an issue for the U.S. Congress, not for negotiations with Cuba; U.S. compensation to Cuba for alleged damages to its economy from the embargo (blockade); Cuba’s compensation to U.S. interests for expropriation of their property in Cuba; the future status of Guantanamo Bay; and extradition of fugitives from one country to the other.
I agree that the most difficult set of issues to be resolved by bilateral negotiations are those just mentioned. Indeed, as an outsider, I think they will be impossible to resolve by such negotiations.
On the other hand, I think that the way to resolve these issues is direct and simple in concept: submit these disputes to an impartial third party. There are various ways this could be done. I have suggested that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands be chosen by the two countries to resolve these disputes: it has been in existence since the late 19th century and has an existing set of rules for such proceedings, which will be lengthy and complicated.
 State Dep’t, Press Availability With Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla (Aug. 14, 2015); Reuters, Kerry Says Next U.S. President Likely to Uphold New Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Says Won’t Move ‘One Millimeter’ to Placate Enemies in U.S., N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, A Festive Flag-Raising, Then Tough Talk on US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015);Reuters, Cuba’s Top Diplomat for U.S. Sees Long Road for Normal Ties, N.Y. Times (Aug. 16, 2015); Cuban Foreign Minister receives John Kerry (+Photos), Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); John Kerry: We are determined to move forward, Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); Cuba and U.S. discuss next steps in developing relations, Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); Cuba and the United States: Some questions about the future, Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); In joint press conference Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla and John Kerry, Granma (Aug. 15, 2015).
 One of the criticized U.S. immigration policies is the dry foot/wet foot program whereby a Cuban who lands on U.S. land is eligible for special U.S. immigration status while one apprehended at sea is not.. Another is the U.S.’ Cuban medical personnel parole program.
 Schwartz, Nicas & Lee, Obama Administration Pushes for Deal to Start Flights to Cuba by Year’s End, W.S.J. (Aug. 17, 2015); Reuters, White House, Cuba Work to Resume Scheduled Commercial Flights, WSJ, N.Y. times (Aug. 17, 2015).
 Previous posts have discussed Cuba’s claim for damages from the embargo (blockade); the U.S. claims for compensation for expropriated property; the Cuban lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. and whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease; extradition of fugitives.