HAVANA: US lawmakers visiting Havana voiced hope that historic talks between US and Cuban officials this week will mark a “new era” of relations, ending decades of Cold War-era hostility.
The six-member delegation of congressional Democrats, led by Senator Patrick Leahy, met Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as well as dissidents and Cardinal Jaime Ortega during their two-day visit.
Their trip preceded talks on Wednesday and Thursday between Cuban officials and the highest-ranking US delegation to visit Havana since the 1980s.
The meeting will be the first since the historic announcements in December by US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro that their countries will normalize ties that broke off in 1961.
As the two nations get closer, one person has been noticeably quiet: the 88-year-old retired leader Fidel Castro has not reacted publicly to the rapprochement, sparking speculation about his health.
“This is historic. We were frozen in the same foreign policy with Cuba for over 50 years,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said at the end of the two-day visit.
“Finally this president came to the realization that that policy wasn’t serving the best interests of the United States, of Cuba, or of the world,” he said. “Now we are moving toward a new era.”
The first day of the talks will center on migration — an issue that has vexed both nations for decades, with Cubans hopping on rickety boats to traverse 145 kilometers (90 miles) of shark-infested waters to reach Florida.
Then on Thursday, the two sides will negotiate the reopening of their embassies.
Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will head the American delegation while the Cubans will be represented by the foreign ministry’s director for US affairs, Josefina Vidal.
US officials sought to play down any expectations that this week’s talks would immediately resolve all questions.
The two countries are currently represented by “interests sections” without ambassadors.
A senior US State Department official said in Washington that the US side wants communist Cuba to lift travel restrictions for American diplomats within the island, ease shipments to the US mission and lift a cap on personnel.
The official added, however, that US negotiators were “not going with the expectation of closing all of those issues in this first conversation.”
“We hope there will be an accelerated pace of engagement beyond this first conversation,” the official said. “A lot of the pace depends on the Cuban government.”
Obama has ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s inclusion in a list of state sponsors of terrorism, an important step before embassies can reopen.
But the US officials said the review process will not hold up preparations to reopen the US embassy.
For Cuba, getting its name off the US blacklist is also crucial because it has blocked access to credit from international financial institutions.
Cubans have voiced hope that the warming ties will translate into improvements in their daily lives, in a country where supermarket shelves are bare and people make around $20 a month.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a member of the Senate agriculture committee, said she looked forward to seeing “all kinds” of US products hit Cuban markets.
“We don’t want anyone to have to worry about whether or not there will be potatoes on the shelves, or milk on the shelves, or pork or beef or grains or fruits or vegetables,” she said. “We would love to be partners in that as well.”
But some lawmakers have criticized Obama’s Cuba move, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, saying the White House had conceded too much to the Castro regime.
The Obama administration already took a major step on Friday when it used executive powers to loosen some travel and trade restrictions.
But the US Congress still has the final say on ending a five-decade embargo that has forbidden most commerce and general tourism.
For its part, the Cuban government completed this month the release of 53 political prisoners who were on a list provided by the United States.