When the U.S. and Cuba met in Washington today for their second round of talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations, we were all thinking about Leonard Nimoy. The iconic actor who played Spock in the Star Trek television and movie franchise died today at age 83.
In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock explains why Captain Kirk was going to negotiate with the Klingons:
Captain Spock: Last month, at the behest of the Vulcan ambassador, I opened a dialogue with Gorkon, Klingon chancellor of the High Council. He proposes to begin negotiations at once.
Admiral Cartwright: Negotiations for what?
Captain Spock: The dismantling of our star bases and outposts along the Neutral Zone, an end to nearly 70 years of unremitting hostility which the Klingons can no longer afford.
If centuries into an imagined future, adversaries will still be sitting down to talk about ending their hostilities, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Cuba and the U.S. ended their second round of negotiations without an agreement on opening embassies or the other measures required for reconnecting our severed diplomatic relations.
There is, after all, a long list of issues dividing the two governments, and not a lot of trust after decades of hostilities and suspect motives bringing them together.
Even after the exceptional elegance of the December 17th announcement — the simultaneous addresses by Presidents Obama and Castro, the release of prisoners, even the convergence of Jewish, Catholic, and Santeria holidays — both countries have doubts.
Cuba is yet to be convinced that President Obama’s diplomatic outreach constitutes more than a soft power expression of our historic regime change policy. The United States, for its part, sees Cuba as unwilling to make concessions to achieve a deal, which the Cuban government views as an intrusion on its national sovereignty.
The agenda laid out in advance of the second round of talks, as reported by the Washington Post, was to be “narrowly focused on opening embassies and on putting in place a framework for separate bilateral talks on various issues, including human rights and a new civil aviation agreement that will allow commercial air traffic between the two countries.” But, this agenda couldn’t be read at face value.
The real sticking point is Cuba’s false and flawed designation as a nation that is a state sponsor of terrorism. As the New York Times reported, “Cuban officials say they cannot envision opening a formal embassy in the United States while their country remains on the terror list.”
Cuba’s terror list designation has stopped U.S. banks from providing commercial banking services to its Interests Section and consulates. As a practical matter, Cuban officials say that they cannot operate an embassy without a checking account.
In fact, the terrorist list is a drag on all of Cuba’s dealings in the global economy and a regulatory risk to every financial institution processing its transactions.
The State Department, in trying to keep the talks on track to smooth President Obama’s sailing into the upcoming Summit of the Americas gathering, offered a somewhat fanciful way out for the negotiators. As a senior State Department Official told reporters this week “It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations if they would not link those two things.”
Paradoxically, the hardliners who oppose restoring relations with Cuba are also the biggest supporters of keeping the debate focused on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, which several tried to do in comments orchestrated this week.
For example, Senator Bob Menendez, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a stern and seriously-worded letter to Secretary Kerry admonishing the administration not to remove Cuba from the list until Joanna Chesimard, a U.S. fugitive granted political asylum in Cuba, is returned to the U.S. (something Cuba has promised not to do).
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, at a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called Cuba “a clear and present danger to the United States,” and demanded that the U.S. keep Cuba on the State Sponsors list.
At the same time, the U.S. has its own list of issues — ending travel restrictions on our diplomats, removing the cordon of Cuban police who surround our Interest Section in Havana, expanding the limits on our staff and the like — it wants to see resolved, too.
This afternoon, the talks ended neither in breakthrough nor breakdown but with claims of progress and promises for more discussions at an unspecified date. Reuters reported, however, that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas.”
When asked to explain why Captain Kirk was sent by the Federation to negotiate with its worst enemy, the Klingons, Spock quotes what he calls an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”
To make a deal before going to Panama in April, both sides are going to have to concede something — and at the highest levels.