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State Department To Begin Steps To Restore Ties With Cuba

A top state department official plans to go to Cuba next month. This week's announcement that the two countries would restore diplomatic ties comes a half a century after relations were severed.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Normalizing ties with Cuba more than half a century after diplomatic relations were cut will not happen overnight. Plus, there are still pitfalls that could slow down the process. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on this post-Cold War thaw could play out.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson says from the legal perspective, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba is pretty straightforward.

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ROBERTA JACOBSON: We can do that via an exchange of letters or of notes. It doesn't require a formal sort of legal treaty or agreement.

KELEMEN: She says the president has full authority to upgrade relations and change the U.S. diplomatic post from what's known as an interest section under the Swiss protecting power to a real embassy.

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JACOBSON: So that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon we would transition to becoming an embassy. And we would change the sign on our mission.

KELEMEN: Where Congress comes into play is on the budget. The Senate would also have to confirm anyone President Obama nominates as an ambassador. Senator Marco Rubio, who will soon share the foreign relations subcommittee on the Western hemisphere, says he will challenge this policy.

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SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: This deal the president has come up with is a terrible trade off. In exchange for diplomatic recognition, more cooperation on telecommunications, more banking, more commerce, more travel and more remittances, in the words of Raul Castro, Cuba has agreed to nothing.

KELEMEN: Speaking yesterday in Florida, Rubio wouldn't say whether he would try to block funding for an embassy. Such a move would be regrettable, argues one retired diplomat who used to run the U.S. interest section. Michael Parmly is all for diplomatic contacts. When he was in Cuba, he says he only saw Fidel Castro once, when the then president was leading a huge march outside the interest section to protest a news ticker the U.S. put up.

MICHAEL PARMLY: We pushed the limits as much as we could. I mean, I urged my younger officers to get out and to mingle with the Cuban population, partly to let the Cuban population know that, you know, we weren't the ogres that sometimes the regime propaganda made us out to be and partly to understand better what Cubans were thinking.

KELEMEN: Assistant Secretary Jacobson says what the U.S. interest section does now in Havana and what a future embassy will do is important for Americans and Cubans.

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JACOBSON: One of the ways we check on how the dissident community is doing is by having representation on the island. One of the ways we try and find out whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are not harassed is through having personnel on the island.

KELEMEN: Jacobson says human rights issues will be part of all of the discussions with Cuba, but there are no human rights conditions when it comes to normalizing relations. The assistant secretary says that part is, in her words, fairly mechanical. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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