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Historic Diplomatic Talks Begin In Cuba


Historic talks began in Havana today between Cuban and U.S. diplomats, the highest level American delegation to visit in 35 years. This, of course, follows the thaw in relations announced simultaneously last month by President Obama and President Raul Castro. From the mundane - how to get supplies to U.S. personnel - to the broader question of building ties between longtime foes, these meetings will cover a wide range of issues. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us from Havana where both sides briefed the media today. So what did they say?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: We heard officials from both the Cuban and the U.S. side, and they both said words like the talks are constructive, they're respectful, they're going well. There's progress in some areas and there are areas where they agree. But there are also distinct areas where they disagree.

SIEGEL: Now, today's talks are focusing just on migration policy. What are the issues there?

KAHN: That's true. These are just the migration talks, which Cuban and U.S. officials periodically do anyway. So this isn't the hard work right now. They're talking about things where they have cooperation, such as cracking down on document frauds, passports, visas, also, trying to crack down on illegal immigration, mutual search-and-rescues for migrants out in the ocean.

But there are points that Cuba very much objects to in the U.S. policy. And that was kind of interesting, what the Cuban official said to us. Cuba really dislikes what is colloquially known as the wet-foot-dry-foot policy where Cubans that make it on the mainland of the U.S. can stay there. The Cuban official said that they believe this is the major stimulus for illegal immigration into the United States. And they also feel that they had some sort of promise from the U.S. about 20 years ago that that policy would be removed, and the fact that it is still enforced casts a pall on the spirit of the new warming of relations between the two countries, so that was sort of a dagger that I thought was quite surprising from the Cuban official today.

SIEGEL: Now, tomorrow the talks turn to restoring relations. How would you describe the mood going in to those talks?

KAHN: Those are going to be the tough ones, Robert. That's definitely going to be about how to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries. From the U.S. side, it's quite interesting. Like you said in your introduction, they just - they were asking for - or want to talk about, you know, how you get supplies to U.S. personnel here, trying to lift the cap on the number of U.S. personnel allowed on the island, lifting travel restrictions for them, things like that, whereas the Cubans - they have much more on the table that they're looking for. Principally, they say, you know, lifting the embargo. And also, one main sticking point for the Cubans is that they're still on the U.S. list of for state-sponsored terrorism. That, to them, is a stumbling block in this new warmer relationship.

Questions were asked about the talks tomorrow and the officials here on both sides said they did not want to preempt any atmosphere going into those talks, so they did not discuss any of the stumbling blocks or how those talks would progress. We'll have to wait until tomorrow to really hear the core issues of reestablishing the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

SIEGEL: The U.S. wants to move from an intersection to a full-fledged embassy in Havana. I assume that'll be a subject for talks there?

KAHN: Definitely, that's something that the U.S. really wants. And one thing that they also brought up that they are looking for is that Cuban nationals that come to an embassy in Havana - that they have unrestricted entrance into the new U.S. Embassy and also no harassment by Cuban officials for maintaining contact with U.S. diplomats. So those are some of the things that they're looking for.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Havana. Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.