U.S., Cuba hold first formal talks on human rights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba met on Tuesday to discuss how they intend to treat future dialogue on the thorny issue of human rights as the countries move toward restoring diplomatic ties.

No major announcements emerged from the meeting, the first formal dialogue between the countries on human rights since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they were seeking to restore diplomatic ties.

“The atmosphere of the meeting was professional, and there was broad agreement on the way forward for a future substantive dialogue,” the State Department said in a statement at the end of the day.

“Both sides expressed willingness to discuss a wide range of topics in future substantive talks,” it added.

The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the State Department’s assistant secretary for human rights and democracy. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and law at the ministry of foreign affairs, led the Cuban side.

“This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Human rights are a priority.”

The United States has pressed Cuba to improve human rights conditions on the communist-led island and expressed concern, in particular, about the jailing of political dissidents and activists and treatment of political prisoners.

Cuba has told Washington it will not tolerate interference in its internal affairs and has demanded that the United States stop supporting dissidents. It has said that the United States should address its own human rights issues, citing killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City by police.

Obama, a Democrat, needs the Republican-controlled Congress to completely normalize relations with Cuba, but Republicans such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio have opposed engagement as long as Cuba remains a one-party state, represses dissidents and controls the media.

Geoff Thale, program director for human rights group WOLA, said Cuba has often taken actions in response to outside forces, referring to calls from the Vatican to release political prisoners.

“The first meeting is intended to discuss the structure of future talks, and the dialogue is going to have to overcome a legacy of mistrust, as well as the vast conceptual differences between the two countries on the topic of human rights,” Thale said.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, additional reporting by David Adams; editing by Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio