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    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
    our relationship.”

    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
    differences.”

    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
    scandal.

    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,”
    he added.

    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.

    Source: Cuban diplomat heading talks with U.S. doesn’t hesitate to speak
    her mind | The Miami Herald –
    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article7784457.html