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Facing resistance from Capitol Hill, U.S. opens Cuba talks

The United States and Cuba have commenced talks aimed at normalizing long-strained relations, but support for this turning point is not universal. Gwen Ifill talks to Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News from Havana about opposition from Capitol Hill and the long process of reestablishing the relationship after 53 years.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more on this turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations, we turn to Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News. She's in Havana tonight, and I spoke with her a short time ago.

    Indira, thanks for joining us.

    Between the expectations for these talks and the Cuban expectations of these talks, is there a middle ground here somewhere?

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, Bloomberg News:

    I think that there definitely has been a sort of lowering of expectations on both sides, from initially a month ago, we heard both President Obama and Castro talking about the normalization of relations.

    And what we have heard since yesterday from the Cuban side, as well as from the American side, is a new vocabulary. Instead of talking about normalization, they're now talking the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which I think is in its own way a way to sort of reset the thought of how long this is going to take.

    You could certainly put a flag up at each intersection, turn it into an embassy, set up ambassadors, but it is going to take longer to have normal trade and relations between the two countries, who have been under an embargo 53 years, the U.S. against Cuba. So it's really going to take a lot of redoing on this relationship. It won't happen in one day.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today's conversation was about migration. Describe what you were talking — what they were talking about.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    Yes.

    So, we're talking about is, ever since the Clinton administration in 1994, the U.S. and Cuba got together and had a migration accord, saying that the United States would legally allow in about 20,000 Cubans a year as a way to try to discourage Cubans from coming on rafts, the so-called balseros, which is a very dangerous way of coming, and so to decrease human trafficking and illegal migration.

    Now, these talks happen every six months. But this is the first time that these talks have happened in such an atmosphere, on the eve of attempts to reestablish diplomatic relations. And what we saw was a bit of a clash today between the U.S. side saying that despite all of these announcements that they are going to continue the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy, which is a special preferential treatment for Cuban immigrants that allows anybody who gets to the United States from Cuba to have legal residency right away, as opposed to people from any other country.

    They're going to keep that going. And the Cubans came right back and said, we're not happy with this, this is a policy that encourages people to come over here illegally — to the United States illegally, rather — and they also said that the United States was encouraging their doctors and medical workers to effectively defect from third countries, and that this was unethical and depriving people in poor countries of treatment by Cuban doctors.

    So, clearly, they have some issues that still need to be ironed out.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Cuba would also like to iron out this matter of whether it's on the U.S. state sponsor list of terrorism. Is that something which is at least on the table?

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    Absolutely.

    This is something we didn't know at the time, but President Obama had instructed his State Department on December 17 to undertake a six-month review. So, by June, we will know whether the United States intelligence and evidence still considers Cuba to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

    Now, here's the thing. The American officials have said that regardless of the outcome of that review, whether Cuba still is or is not state sponsor of terrorism, they plan to go ahead with reestablishing diplomatic relations. The Cubans have said, hey, wait a minute, we fully expect to be taken off that list. We don't want to be on the list with Iran and Syria and Sudan and we're not going to go forward with normalization unless we get taken off that list.

    So, that is going to be a point of contention if the U.S. review doesn't turn out the way the Cubans want it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Does the Obama administration have kind of broader bilateral goals in mind and is it threatened at all by the resistance we're seeing on Capitol Hill from people like Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others?

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    I don't know if threatened is the right word so much as resigned to.

    They knew that they were going to get resistance from Cuban Americans in Congress. And Bob Menendez, who is a Democrat himself, has been one of the strongest opponents of the president trying to normalize relations. I think they know that is going to be a slow uphill battle.

    But I think we also saw from the president's State of the Union last night that he is making this a priority and that he's willing to act aggressively, unilaterally, using executive power, to the extent that he can.

    Now, he has so far said that he thinks it's up to Congress to lift the embargo, that he can't do it alone, even though there are some legal analysts who believe he has more power than he's actually letting on.

    I mean, I think that Congress is going to be an impediment for the president, but we also see in polling that younger Cuban Americans in the United States, those under the age of 40, are very much in favor of reestablishing relations with the United States and Cuba, as opposed to older Cuban Americans. So we are seeing a generational shift here, too.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And we're assuming that this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    Absolutely.

    I think that we're talking, I would say, a matter of months, you know, before we see flags flying in each capital over embassies and ambassadors named, or at least in the case of the United States trying to name an ambassador without it being blocked by Congress.

    But I think the longer process of regularizing relations and having trade and everything else that goes with that, not to mention trust, that is going to be a longer process. So, I have asked U.S. officials about this, and we don't really know yet how long that's going to take. I think on the U.S. side they're hopeful that it will be sooner, rather than later, but those talks will be happening tomorrow, and along with other bilateral conversations about cooperation on global health, against Ebola, environment, Coast Guard.

    So, we will see a variety of talks, and we will see how far they can get.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, thank you very much for joining us from Havana.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    Thanks.

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