Cuban diplomat heading talks with U.S. doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind
Cuban diplomat heading talks with U.S. doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD MWHITEFIELD@MIAMIHERALD.COM
01/20/2015 7:00 AM 01/20/2015 6:51 PM
Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, who will head the Cuban delegation in this
week’s talks to begin normalization of diplomatic ties with the United
States, is described as well prepared, intelligent and a keen observer
of U.S. policy — and she is a woman who doesn’t mince words.
In February 2013 after President Barack Obama said in an interview with
Telemundo that it was time for Cuba to “join the 21st century,” the
senior Cuban official shot back: “It’s unfortunate that President Obama
continues to be poorly advised and ill-informed about the Cuban reality,
as well as the sentiments of his own people who desire normalization of
A few months after that in mid-2013, however, secret talks began that
resulted in the Dec. 17 announcement that the two countries were
resuming diplomatic relations. That same year, Vidal, who is the Cuban
Foreign Ministry’s top diplomat for North American affairs, met twice
with State Department officials before migration talks, which had been
on a two-year hiatus, resumed that July.
Vidal’s U.S. counterpart at the normalization talks on Thursday will be
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta
Jacobson. The two negotiators have gotten to know each other very well
over the years.
While Jacobson speaks fluent Spanish, Vidal is fluent in English.
“Very well-informed on policy issues, very intelligent and up-to-date,”
is the way Vivian Mannerud, who has long been involved in the Cuba
travel business, describes Vidal.
“She’s very personable but she will speak her mind — although with
respect and decency,” said Mannerud. “She’s professional but there is no
fooling her. She won’t take any crap from you.”
During the current round of U.S-Cuba migration talks, which begin
Wednesday in Havana, Vidal also will lead the Cuban delegation. Jacobson
is not expected to take part in the migration talks, which will be
headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee on the U.S. side.
Earlier this week, Vidal sat in during a meeting of Cuban Foreign
Minister Bruno Rodríguez and a U.S. congressional delegation headed by
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.
“She’s often on the tarmac welcoming visiting congressional
delegations,” said Charles A. Serrano, managing director of
Chicago-based Antilles Strategy Group, which has taken congressional
leaders to Cuba.
When Vidal visited Columbia University in September 2013 to speak at the
School of International and Public Affairs, Provost John Coatsworth
introduced her as “one of Cuba’s leading Americanologists.
“She is a perceptive and sophisticated student of U.S. politics and
policy,” he said.
Vidal talked about the “deep economic transformation” that Cuba was
undergoing as well as how foreign investment was poised to become a key
factor in her country’s development plans.
She also discussed the process of transferring key government positions
from the older generation to a younger, more diverse generation.
The diplomat herself is a member of that new generation and is “seen as
an up and coming leader,” said Serrano. She’s a member of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.
“Cuba has changed more in two, three years than it had in the previous
20 years,” Vidal said during her Columbia talk. “The United States seems
to be ignoring these transformations that are taking place in our
country,” she said, and wasting opportunities for business participation
in the island.
She emphasized that both countries could gain a lot from “a mutually
beneficial relationship based on common interests and respect for our
Vidal would like to see the United States go beyond the diplomatic and
commercial opening that Obama outlined and lift the five-decades-old
embargo, which would take an act of Congress.
“Look back. When have you seen a negative response to the American
government removing any type of restriction?” Vidal told the Associated
Press in December. “What we say is: Get rid of the excuse and put us to
the test! We don’t have any reason to reject anything that comes from
the United States that’s positive, and that are measures taken to loosen
the blockade (the Cuban terms for the embargo).”
Vidal is well-known in Washington. Not only did she serve at the Cuban
Interests Section where she was a first secretary from 1999 to 2003, but
she was later a key negotiator in talks with the United States on
migration, direct mail delivery service and other topics of mutual interest.
While she was at the Cuban Interests Section, the head of the mission,
Fernando Remírez, served as the Cuban point man in the case of Elián
González, the rafter boy who was found adrift at sea after his mother
perished. The boy became caught up in a custody battle between his
father in Cuba and his Miami relatives.
When Elián was finally returned to Cuba on June 28, 2000 after a court
ruled he belonged with his father, Vidal was shown escorting the boy and
his family members on the plane home and was photographed on the tarmac
in Havana as she got off the plane, said Julia Sweig, a U.S. scholar who
has written extensively on Cuba.
“That was one of the first episodes where she became a bit of a public
figure to Cubans. She really caught attention,” Sweig said.
That moment helped to propel Vidal to her current status as not just a
trusted foreign ministry figure, but a senior government official, said
Sweig. “That was a defining moment for her.”
As first secretary, Vidal served as a cultural and academic liaison and
traveled to U.S. universities, including Harvard, which at the time had
many academic exchanges with the University of Havana and other Cuban
institutions. During that era, Cuban diplomats were allowed to travel
around the United States.
But her time at the Cuban Interests Section is not without a whiff of
The United States expelled 14 Cuban diplomats, including seven at the
Cuban mission to the United Nations and seven at the Cuban Interests
Section, for espionage in 2003. They were given 10 days to depart.
Among those expelled were First Secretary Jose Anselmo Lopez Perera, the
husband of Vidal. She herself was not expelled but accompanied him back
to Havana where she joined the Ministry of Foreign Relations’ North
American division. She became head of the U.S. division in 2006 and now
heads the North American division.
In recent years, she has often served as a government spokesperson on
thorny affairs with the United States such as the imprisonment of USAID
subcontractor Alan Gross, who was released by Cuba the same day renewed
diplomatic ties were announced.
“While she was in D.C., everyone liked her very much; she was
personable,” said Serrano. At the time she left Washington, “she was
doing an excellent job of building relationships,” he said. “She is one
of the best people they have.
“She’s an avid reader who studies American life and American thought,”
Vidal studied international relations both in Havana and Moscow.
She has worked at a University of Havana think tank that studies the
United States, was an analyst at the Cuban Embassy in Paris from 1990 to
1997 and was a coordinator for the U.S. analysis group at the Ministry
of Foreign Relations.
Now with two women — Vidal and Jacobson — facing each other at the
negotiating table Thursday, Serrano said, “Perhaps there is a message to
be sent: Women are better negotiators than men.”
MCCLATCHY FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER HANNAH ALLAM CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY.
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