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Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director general for the United States, with ambassador in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas. Photo: Juvenal Balán

The third meeting of the Bilateral Commission established by Cuba and the United States was held in Havana, May 16, and an ambitious work agenda for the coming months was set, as part of the process of moving toward normalization of relations, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Josefina Vidal, the ministry’s director general for the United States and Cuba’s leading representative to the Commission, stated during a press conference that the two sides made plans for the signing of new cooperation agreements.

Since December 17, 2014, Havana and Washington have agreed to a total of nine accords on a variety of issues such as direct flights, postal service, protection of marine areas, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

Vidal said that, among the topics on which cooperation agreements may be reached soon, are health, agriculture, meteorology, seismology, and protected terrestrial areas – within the context of extending the accord previously signed on marine environments.

She explained that prospects exist for the adoption of agreements on a joint response to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, as well as on combating drug trafficking, saying, “There is a broad range of issues which are being discussed and should lead to new accords.”

The Commission additionally discussed upcoming high-level visits related to areas of mutual interest on which the decision has been made to cooperate, as is the case with health and agriculture.

Likewise under consideration are more technical exchanges on issues like the environment, nautical mapping, and other important questions for the two countries, such as drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, and migration fraud.

Vidal reported that the initiation of talks on intellectual and industrial property was established as a goal, “This regards an area of great interest, such as the protection of brand names and patents.”

“I should say that the objectives we have set for the next three months, and the agenda, are fairly ambitious, in terms of new actions, accords, visits, and new talks,” she noted, adding, “This will take time, but what’s important is that it has begun.”

The Bilateral Commission was established in August last year, to provide follow up on issues related to the normalization of relations between the countries, and address short and medium term plans.

“We believe that it is a useful mechanism which was created by the joint decision of the two parties,” Vidal explained, “This is the first time Cuba and the United States have decided to provide ourselves with such a mechanism.”

The U.S. delegation was led by Ambassador Kristie Kenney, State Department Counselor, with John S. Creamer, deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere attending, as well.

According to a communiqué from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the two governments recognized that significant steps have been taken toward greater cooperation in environmental protection, air travel, direct mail, maritime and port security, health, agriculture, educational and cultural exchanges, and regulatory issues, adding that the delegations also discussed talks on human rights and economic claims. The text stated that the United States expects to hold meetings on these issues “in the near future.”

Cuba still cannot use the dollar

Despite the most recent measures adopted by President Obama to modify some aspects of the blockade, among them authorization for Cuba to use the U.S. dollar – announced in March – international transactions in this currency have not yet been possible.

Josefina Vidal reported that, as of Monday, May 16, no such operations have taken place in banks in third countries, which remain “fearful and concerned” about the possibility of facing multimillion dollar fines for processing Cuban transactions.

She explained that the use of the dollar has been authorized “on the books,” but that this is not enough, adding that it is imperative that the U.S. clarify the situation with international banks.

She cited as an example the recent meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from European financial institutions to address the situation with Iranian transactions.

Even when these operations become possible, Cuba remains subject to other limitations, Vidal noted.

This modification refers only to international financial transactions, not those between Cuba and the United States.

She explained that in order to normalize relations between the two countries, Cuba must be permitted to open correspondence accounts in U.S. financial institutions. If this is not allowed, Cuba will continue to be obliged to “triangulate” payments to U.S. companies through banks in third countries, which raises costs for all involved.

The Blockade

The Bilateral Commission, Vidal said, reviewed progress being made on agreements reached since its second meeting in Washington, last November.

“We can confirm an increase in official visits in both directions, including high-level visits such as that of President Obama in March of 2016,” she noted.

“Meetings of a technical nature on topics of mutual interest, between experts from the two countries, have also increased, as well as the number of bilateral instruments signed to expand mutually beneficial cooperation.”

Nevertheless, Vidal said, progress has not been as rapid or of the same magnitude, in the economic arena, because the blockade remains in full force.

“Despite Obama’s measures, which are positive but insufficient, significant limitations persist,” she explained, citing limits on the export of Cuban products to the U.S. and barriers faced by companies from that country wishing to invest in Cuba, in sectors other than telecommunications.

“The Cuban delegation again insisted that the lifting of the blockade is a priority, because it affects Cubans and their ties with third countries, including the United States.”

Cuba had the opportunity to provide the U.S. delegation with a list of damages caused by the blockade during the last few months.

Among them, Vidal cited fines levied on a French company and two U.S. companies, as well as 14 cases of financial persecution of Cuba, including the closing of accounts and the denial of services.

A total of 13 international banks have been involved in these types of financial affectations, even when currencies of other nations were involved, not the U.S. dollar, Vidal reported, saying, “We are sharing all of this so that the extraterritorial nature of the blockade and the reach this policy has beyond relations between Cuba and the United States, can be seen.”

Cuba also reiterated the necessity of returning territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base, as critical to the normalization of relations.

“This is the only case in the world of a military base rented for perpetuity. There is no similar example anywhere in the world. It is also the only case of a base occupying land against the will of the people and government of another country,” she emphasized.

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