Cuba signals readiness to fast-track US diplomatic ties

MIAMI/HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba is willing to restore diplomatic relations with the United States as soon as the Obama administration declares its intent to take the country off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, according to a senior Cuban official.

That could take place before both sides are ready to open embassies, Josefina Vidal, the head of the United States division at the Cuban Foreign Ministry told state media.

It is the first time Cuba has said publicly it is willing to restore relations before it is removed from the list.

Delinking the opening of embassies could make it easier for diplomatic relations – broken 54 years ago – to be renewed prior to a regional heads of state summit in Panama on April 10-11.

“In our view it’s not necessary to put it all in one package because if, for example, in a few weeks we receive some satisfactory notification in regards to the matter of Cuba’s removal from terrorist list, I think we will be ready to then begin talking about how to formalize the re-establishing of relations,” Vidal said in an interview published on Sunday in Cubadebate.

US and Cuban officials have held two rounds of talks following the Dec 17 announcement that they would work toward normalizing relations.

At talks on Friday, Cuba said removal from the list was a “priority” not a pre-condition for re-establishing relations. Cuba also raised a logistical issue – the lack of a bank willing to accept its account because of US sanctions on banks that do business with countries on the list.

The Obama administration is nearing completion of its review of Cuba’s place on the list, which must be submitted to Congress before the country can be removed after a 45-day wait period, US officials say.

Friday’s talks ended on a positive note with both sides saying there had been progress. Although no date for the renewal of relations – or the next round of talks – was announced, the head of the US delegation, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, said she was “optimistic” about the renewal of relations before the Panama summit.

Vidal told Cubadebate that, if it got word that the Obama administration was recommending its removal for the terrorism list, diplomatic ties could go forward without a prior resolution of the banking issue.

“We could say: ‘OK, let’s re-establish relations’ and the opening of the embassies are deferred until a later time, when there are appropriate conditions,” Vidal said.

Cuba was added to the terrorism sponsors list in 1982, when it aided Marxist insurgencies during the Cold War, but it is currently aiding a peace process with Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas.

The White House wants to restore relations before the Panama summit to strengthen Obama’s hand with other Latin American countries who have been critical of the US policy for decades.

“The expectation from the Latin American countries is very high,” said Margaret Crahan, Director of the Cuba Program at Columbia University.

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