HAVANA, Cuba – U.S. and Cuban officials met Monday in Havana for new talks on restoring diplomatic ties, but their historic rapprochement was strained by tensions over Venezuela.
The top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, met her Cuban counterpart Josefina Vidal behind closed doors for a third round of talks on normalizing relations, but the atmosphere of reconciliation was marred by protests over Washington’s treatment of Venezuela.
As Jacobson touched down in the Cuban capital late Sunday, thousands of people attended a concert and rally to “support the Bolivarian [Venezuelan] people and government” in their mounting row with the United States.
U.S. relations with Venezuela, a key Cuban ally, have been on a downward spiral since President Nicolás Maduro accused Washington in February of sponsoring a coup attempt against him — a claim Washington denies.
After President Barack Obama slapped new sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of an opposition crackdown in the wake of the coup allegation, Maduro responded by recalling Venezuela’s envoy to Washington and lashing out at the “imperialist elite.”
The socialist leader then ordered 10 days of “defensive military exercises” and asked Venezuela’s National Assembly to grant him the power to rule by decree on defense and public safety matters — a request voted through by his legislative majority on Sunday.
The row threatens to blight the goodwill Obama cultivated throughout Latin America by moving to restore ties with Cuba.
It has also exposed the gaps that still remain between the United States and Cuba, which has relied heavily on Venezuelan oil money since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Havana called Obama’s new sanctions “arbitrary and aggressive.”
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Unlike the previous two rounds of talks held since the historic U.S.-Cuban rapprochement was announced on Dec. 17, 2014, no press conference was scheduled for this week’s meetings between Jacobson and Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat on U.S. affairs.
A senior State Department official downplayed expectations of the talks, due to last until mid-week, saying they will probably not produce any major announcements.
Both sides are trying to iron out remaining issues with an eye on the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.
Obama is due to attend the summit, where Cuba will also participate for the first time.
Obama has said he hopes the two countries can reopen embassies in each other’s capitals before the summit.
“That’s something that we still would like and that’s what we hope,” the senior State Department official said.
He said Washington was “disappointed” with Cuba’s position on its row with Venezuela, but that “it will not have an impact on these conversations moving forward.”
But the two sides remain at odds on several thorny issues, such as compensation for property owned by U.S. citizens and companies and that was nationalized after the Cuban Revolution, freedom of movement for diplomats and Cuba’s removal from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terror.
And lifting the crippling trade and financial embargo the United States slapped on Cuba in 1962 would require approval from Congress — a difficult political battle with both houses currently under Republican control.
The two sides are next due to meet in late March, when they will address the delicate issue of human rights for the first time.
The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 and continued to isolate the country, the only communist regime in the Americas, even after the Cold War ended.
Their thaw left North Korea, another of Washington’s old Cold War antagonists, reminding Cuba of their shared animosity for the United States.
The two communist countries “share a history of fighting together in the same trench against American imperialism, which continues to exert economic pressure on our countries to this day,” said Foreign Minister Ri Su-Yong during a visit to Havana that coincided with Monday’s talks.
Speaking amid heightened tensions with South Korea and the United States over their annual joint military drills, Ri said North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was keen to “broaden and strengthen” relations with Cuba.