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U.S.-Cuban Officials Meet In Cuba To Re-Establish Relations

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama's surprise announcement that the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to restore full diplomatic relations moved a little closer to reality today. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson is meeting with her Cuban counterpart in Havana. It's the highest-level U.S. delegation to the island in nearly half a century. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Havana covering those talks and joins us now. Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is on the agenda?

KAHN: Well, today it's about migration and issues of mutual interest like cracking down on visa fraud and search and rescue missions for stranded migrants. These talks aren't new. Cuban and U.S. officials hold them every six months. The tough talks really begin tomorrow, when the two sides sit down and start discussing, you know, how they're going to reestablish diplomatic relations. A senior State Department official says the U.S. is under no illusions that this will be easy after so many decades of hostilities between the two countries. And for its part, a high-ranking Cuban official told reporters yesterday that although the U.S. has taken the right steps recently, the path toward full diplomatic relations - it's going to be long and slow.

MONTAGNE: Well, Carrie, the U.S. already has what's known as an interest section there. How much more will a full embassy in Havana be able to do?

KAHN: Definitely it will be much different. On the diplomatic level, an embassy has greater influence and more diplomatic perks. You know, when you get down to it, that's what the U.S. delegation is looking for, basic guarantees that they would get with this new status. They want the Cubans to lift the cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country. They also want an easing of travel restrictions put on U.S. diplomats. They can't leave the capital without special permission. It's the same for Cuban personnel in Washington. The U.S. negotiators also are looking for assurances that they could get diplomatic deliveries. It's very mundane sort of stuff. And they also want Cubans who would come to a U.S. embassy in Havana to be able to do so without any repercussions from the Cuban government.

MONTAGNE: Which, I presume, would have been a barrier for Cubans there.

KAHN: Right. They say that they're harassed, that there are repercussions when they come to the interest section right now. And they're asking the Cubans for free access to what would be an embassy.

MONTAGNE: Now, you spoke just a moment ago about hurdles to a done deal. Tell us a couple of those.

KAHN: It seems like there are many in the path right now - topping the list, years, decades of mistrust and tensions between the two countries. One thing that could be helpful in these talks is that both the delegations are led by women. On the U.S. side is the assistant secretary of state for the hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson. She's fluent in Spanish. She's well-known. Her counterpart here, Josefina Vidal, is also well-known in Washington circles and well-respected. But, you know, there are so many roadblocks. One, of course, is the decades-long embargo that the U.S. has against Cuba. But also what really irks the Cubans is their placement on the U.S. State Department's list of state-sponsored terrorism. President Obama said the U.S. has already begun the process of reevaluating that designation. He said that the same day that he announced the historic warming of relations between the countries. But that process could take up to six months. And also, the Cubans get very upset when U.S. officials come here and speak to dissidents and civil society. That always seems to irk them. There's many roadblocks that are in the way of this confidence-building that needs to occur.

MONTAGNE: All right, so in a line, what are we talking about in terms of a timetable here? When will the U.S. have an embassy?

KAHN: Everybody's saying the process is moving in the right direction. But predictions of President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry coming to the island in 2015 are pretty rosy and not likely to occur. On Tuesday, a Russian intelligence-gathering ship docked in the Havana marina just miles from the U.S. Interest Section. So these things still keep occurring. And we don't expect there - to see the American flag rising above the building any time soon.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Carrie Kahn, speaking to us from Havana. Thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.