A prior post reported about the planned meetings in Havana of a delegation of congressional Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy. Now we have news of what happened on their three-day trip.
Here is a photo of the delegation in Havana (left to right): Representative Chris Van Hollen, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Peter Welch and Senator Patrick Leahy. (Senator Richard Durbin is the other member of the delegation.)
On Saturday, January 17th, they “met with officials from Cuba’s Culture Ministry in order to discuss possible Cuban participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, a summer celebration of traditional art and culture on Washington’s National Mall.
On Sunday, January 18th, they met with more than a dozen dissidents including critics of the 18-month-old secret negotiations that led to last month’s announcement. All but two of them expressed support for the opening.
One of these two, Antonio Rodiles, said it “was a friendly meeting, they heard the different positions, but the senators are very much in favor of Obama’s measures and want to hear that we agree.” Rodiles, however, criticized the Obama administration for failing to win enough guarantees of reform from the Cuban government. “I said the process [of negotiating the U.S.-Cuba accords] took place without transparency or taking the full range of opinions into account.”
Another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a Cuban non-governmental organization tracking political detentions, said that the Cubans at the meeting “had delivered a list of 24 long-term prisoners whom they wanted to see released in addition to the 53 on the Obama administration’s list.”
On Monday, January 19th, the U.S. delegation met “for several hours with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who told the legislators that Cuba welcomed President Obama’s loosening of the U.S. trade embargo, which would permit more travel to Cuba and economic links including exports of telecommunications equipment and wholesale goods for use by the country’s small private sector.” According to Leahy, Rodriguez is “open to every issue from trade to communications. He talked about the travel back and forth, medical issues. Name an issue, he’s involved.” (To the right is a photo of this meeting.)
Also participating in this meeting were Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, and Cuba’ chief diplomat at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, the latter of whom visited Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church last October.
The U.S. legislators also had hoped to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro, but that did not happen apparently because the Americans had met with Cuban dissidents on Sunday.
This trip is designed to seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, to develop a sense of what Cuba and the U.S. are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible, to impress upon Cuban leaders the importance of concrete results and positive momentum and to convey a sense of Americans’ expectations and congressional perceptions.
They intend to meet with Cuban government officials, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, representatives of Cuba’s civil society, personnel at the U.S. Interests Section and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.
Diplomats of the two countries will hold talks in Havana’s Convention Palace on January 21 and 22, 2015.
Under the countries’ Migration Accords of 1995, they have migration talks every six months, and this will be the focus of the first day’s session. They will assess progress under this Accord and other agreements and actions taken by both parties to tackle illegal migration and trafficking in migrants. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba. The Cuban delegation will be led by the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.
Restoration of Diplomatic Relations
The January 22 session will be devoted to the process of restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including opening of embassies. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, while Josefina Vidal Ferreiro again will be in charge of the Cuban delegation.
Jacobson has said that this “process of restoring diplomatic relations is relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, but the parties have to agree on the process for such restoration. This can be done via an exchange of letters or of notes; it does not require a formal treaty or agreement. The U.S. also will need to terminate its 53-year agreement with the Swiss Government as our protecting power [in Cuba], and the same for the Cubans [in the U.S.]; that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon the U.S. would post a new sign “Embassy of the United States of America” on the building currently housing its mission. A list of all of the U.S. diplomatic officers would be declared directly to the Cuban Government.
What the current U.S. Interests Section does, and what the Embassy will do, Jacobson said, “is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes providing uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals and processing requests for visas for thousands of Cubans every year (nonimmigrant visas for many thousands and immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year). U.S. diplomats also check on whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are harassed by the Cuban government.
Having led the migration talks in 2011, when Jacobson was the principal deputy assistant secretary, she said human rights are always part of the migration-talks agenda and will be again. One issue is whether Cuba is harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section. Another issue is how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave. We often will talk about freedom to leave Cuba; that is different since Cuba now permits most of its citizens to leave without exit visas.
I expect and pray that these meetings will advance the further reconciliation of the two countries. We await the reported results of the meetings.
 On December 17, 2014 Senator Leahy was on the U.S. plane that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. Afterwards, the Senator said, “By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, President [Obama] has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world. Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.” On January 8, 2015, Senator Leahy and seven other senators offered a Senate resolution commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the governments of the [U.S.] and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship.
 On December 17, 2014, Senator Durbin also was on the U.S. plant that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. His subsequent statement expressed support for President Obama’s moves towards reconciliation with Cuba. Senator Durbin was a co-sponsor of the previously mentioned Senate resolution commending Pope Francis.
 On December 17th Senator Stabenow announced her support of President Obama’s changes of policies regarding Cuba.
 On December 17th Senator Whitehouse issued a statement applauding the changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.
 On December 17th Congressman Van Hollen also was on the U.S. plane bringing Alan Gross home and gave thanks for his release and for the “vision of a new day in the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”
 Representative Welch on December 17thapplauded President Obama’s “bold leadership” and the “new era of openness and cooperation” with Cuba.
 The U.S. building, which was completed in 1953, was designed in the Modernist-Brutalist style by the architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which also designed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City. The former is a long, six-story concrete and glass building located directly on the Malecon overlooking the Bay of Havana. The building was not used by U.S. personnel between 1961 and 1977. U.S. diplomats returned to Havana in 1977, and the building was transformed into the United States Interests Section in Havana. Renovations were subsequently completed on the complex in 1997.