Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    U.S. wants end to travel curbs, set up embassy in Cuba talks

    U.S. wants end to travel curbs, set up embassy in Cuba talks
    WASHINGTON/HAVANA Mon Jan 19, 2015 8:04pm EST

    (Reuters) – The United States will urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions
    on U.S. diplomats and agree to opening embassies in historic talks on
    restoring relations this week in Havana, a senior State Department
    official said on Monday.

    The talks will be led by Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for
    Latin America, in the first visit to Cuba in 38 years by a U.S.
    assistant secretary of state.

    “We are looking forward to the Cubans lifting travel restrictions,” the
    official told reporters, referring to curbs that mean U.S. diplomats are
    typically not allowed outside Havana. The same applies to Cuban
    officials in Washington.

    The official said Washington hoped to restore its embassy in Havana in
    “the coming months.” After the United States broke ties with Cuba in
    1961, the six-story building was closed, although it was later converted
    into the U.S. interests sections in 1977.

    “It is hard to know exactly what will come out of this first
    conversation,” the official said, referring to the talks set for
    Wednesday and Thursday. “I am not oblivious to the weight of history.”

    President Barack Obama reset Cuba policy on Dec. 17, opting for
    engagement after more than five decades U.S. hostility toward the island
    nation’s communist government. Washington and Havana held 18 months of
    secret talks before announcing they would re-establish diplomatic ties
    and exchange prisoners.

    Among those released was foreign aid contractor Alan Gross, who spent
    five years in a Cuban prison for importing illegal communications
    equipment while on a mission for the U.S. Agency for International

    Gross will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama when her husband delivers
    the annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, an
    indication the president will discuss Cuba policy in his speech.

    Four Democratic senators and two congressmen on Monday concluded a
    three-day visit to Cuba, the first since Obama’s policy shift. They met
    with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and anti-government dissidents,
    among others, but not President Raul Castro.

    “I think he (Rodriguez) is open to every single issue from trade to
    communications to establishing relations in agriculture,” Sen. Patrick
    Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and leader of the delegation, told
    reporters in Havana.

    “Name an issue. They’re involved. It’s not like we’re negotiating with
    countries we’ve been at war with,” Leahy said.

    The Democrats noted that opinion polls show Americans favor Obama’s
    shift but that, in the words of Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, it would
    be a “heavy lift” to convince a Republican-controlled Congress to
    formally lift the U.S. trade embargo.

    In a letter to Obama on Monday, a group of 78 policy experts and former
    U.S. officials urged the administration to work with Congress to update
    Cuba legislation.

    The State Department official said the hope was to accelerate the pace
    of negotiations with Cuba after this week’s meeting to include other
    areas such as settlement of property claims by Cuban Americans and U.S.
    businesses whose assets were confiscated after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

    In initial moves, Cuba has released 53 political prisoners and the
    United States said it would ease some trade and investment restrictions.

    Washington has said it will press Cuba to release more political
    prisoners and end short-term detentions. In the past Cuba has rejected
    U.S. lecturing on human rights, and it dismisses the dissidents as
    U.S.-backed mercenaries.

    “This is going to be an ongoing issue and we should always bring it up,”
    Leahy said.

    The State Department official said Obama’s new policy depends on “mutual
    consent” between the United States and Cuba.

    The first day of talks will focus on migration issues, including cases
    of Americans who have fled to Cuba. Castro’s government has regularly
    returned U.S. fugitives since 2008 but U.S. authorities say dozens remain.

    (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by
    Cynthia Osterman and Kieran Murray)

    Source: U.S. wants end to travel curbs, set up embassy in Cuba talks |
    Reuters –