May 21, 2015 / 5:25 AM / 4 years ago

U.S., Cuba talks on opening embassies head into second day

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Talks between the United States and Cuba will go into a second day on Friday as the sides try to reach agreement on reopening embassies shut for more than half a century, the crucial next step in their historic detente.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson (3rd L) and Josefina Vidal (4th R), director general of the U.S. division of the Cuban foreign ministry, sit with their delegations at the fourth round of closed talks to re-establish diplomatic relations between the. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The opening of embassies in Washington and Havana is part of an agreement struck between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December to reestablish diplomatic ties severed by the United States in 1961 soon after Cuba’s revolution.

Once diplomatic relations are restored, the long-time adversaries will work on the more complicated task of normalizing overall relations.

“They will continue tomorrow,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said after a day of meetings in Washington led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Both sides are due to hold news conferences on Friday.

Washington wants assurances that its diplomats will have more freedom of movement on the Communist-ruled island, while Castro this week reiterated Cuban concerns that dissidents are receiving “illegal” training at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

The two countries have interests sections rather than embassies in each other’s capitals. Currently, U.S. diplomats cannot leave Havana without permission, while Cuban diplomats cannot travel outside of Washington and New York.

Washington also wants assurances that Cubans would be able to visit the U.S. Embassy without being harassed by police and that there would be in an increase in U.S. embassy personnel.

Jacobson has acknowledged that the embassy would likely operate similarly to those in other countries where there are restrictive political environments. China and Vietnam could serve as models for new rules governing U.S. diplomats’ movements in Cuba.

One of the most contentious issues between the former Cold War rivals is Washington’s so-called pro-democracy programs for Cuba, which Castro calls illegal and a breach of a 1961 international treaty on diplomatic relations.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana offers Cubans free courses on journalism, English and information technology, and also allows Cubans to use the Internet.

Washington continues to press the case for greater political freedoms on the island, despite a rapprochement that has included landmark talks between Castro and Obama during a regional summit in Panama last month.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a daily briefing that the United States was concerned with “the way the Cuban government all too often fails to respect the basic universal human rights” of its people.

“That continues to be a source of significant concern,” he said, adding, “It is our hope that the greater engagement between the United States and Cuba will help the Cuban people and the Cuban government understand how important it is to respect those basic universal human rights.”

    This week’s talks are the first since Obama announced on April 14 that he had decided to remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Havana had called a necessary step for further progress.

The Cubans have signaled that any formal announcement on the re-opening of embassies will likely have to wait until after the 45-day Congressional review period for removing Cuba from the terrorism list. Cuba considers May 29 as the date when the review period ends.

Editing by Frances Kerry

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