Cuba-US warming held up by listing of Cuba as terror sponsor
American hopes of opening an embassy in Havana before presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet at a regional summit this week have been snarled in disputes about Cuba's presence on the United States (US) list of state sponsors of terror and US diplomats' freedom to travel and talk to ordinary Cubans without restriction, officials say.
The Summit of the Americas will be the scene of the presidents' first face-to-face meeting since they announced December 17 that they will re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century of hostility.
The Obama administration wanted the embassies reopened before the summit starts in Panama on Friday, boosting a new American policy motivated partly by a sense that isolating Cuba was causing friction with other countries in the region.
Arriving at the summit with a deal to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana would create goodwill for the US, particularly after it issued new sanctions on selected Venezuelan officials last month that prompted protests from left-leaning countries around the hemisphere.
Deal coming soon
Negotiators on both sides said they are confident they will be able to strike a deal to reopen embassies in the coming weeks, but not necessarily before the summit.
"It's not a lot of time, let's put it that way," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing last Friday when asked whether an agreement on embassies was likely before the gathering in Panama City.
The US and Cuba have held three rounds of talks about restoring diplomatic relations. Cuba's main demand is to be removed from the terror list, a Cold War-era designation that isolates it from much of the world financial system because banks fear repercussions from doing business with designated countries. Even Cuba's Interests Section in Washington has lost its bank in the US, forcing it to deal in cash.
Washington has long since stopped accusing Havana of supporting terrorism and Obama made it clear in December that he intends to remove Cuba from the list.
But US officials said the president must first send Congress a report that says Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months and has assured the United States that it will not support terrorism in the future.
The terror list is a particularly charged issue for Cuba because of the US history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to US-backed anti-Castro groups and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.