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Restoring Diplomatic Relations With Cuba Is A Complicated Process

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to hear now from someone who will be a key player in defining the new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Roberta Jacobson is Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. She will be leading the U.S. delegation to Cuba next month to begin the establishment of the new U.S. Embassy. When we reached her at the State Department today, she said while there are many questions about the future, the initial work is mostly mechanical.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: We have to notify our Congress of the change from an interest section to an embassy. We have to do things like sit down with the Cuban government and agree on how this will proceed. We have to change signage. We have to change stationary. There's no real formula or checklist that goes to every country that restores diplomatic relations. It's a little bit case-by-case.

BLOCK: The restoration of diplomatic conditions with Cuba is not conditional on that country making progress in human rights. So what leverage do you have on that issue?

JACOBSON: Well, I think that whether or not they are specifically conditions of restoration of diplomatic relations, they will be part of the diplomatic conversation, just as they are with countries with whom we have full diplomatic relations. And certainly there are aspects of our relationship that may or may not be able to move forward if we are seeing problems in the area of human rights and democracy.

BLOCK: What would be some of the remaining leverage that you could exert on Cuba if you want to see them make progress on human rights? Where are those pressure points?

JACOBSON: There are clearly things that the Cuban government would like to see from the United States, whether that's opening up of greater investment or business, whether, indeed, the Cuban government would like the embargo lifted. The president has said that that's a debate that should be held in Congress. That's clearly a debate that would be facilitated were there to be greater respect for human rights.

BLOCK: Cuba is still on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism - has been on that list since 1982. And that status now is going to be under review. If Cuba is eventually taken off that list, what are the implications of that?

JACOBSON: Well, I think that if Cuba were to be taken off that list, there are various things that come with it - sanctions, if you will, that are no longer imposed. And I think that it would, obviously, remove from the Cuban government a stain, if you will - a black mark - and, therefore, give them greater access. But we have to wait and see what the review brings. But we're doing that as quickly as we possibly can.

BLOCK: I know you've been talking to officials in other Latin American countries who've been urging the United States to open up to Cuba for quite some time. What are the foreign-policy implications for the region in terms of U.S. policy toward other countries?

JACOBSON: Well, one of the other important things about this decision was that the president recognized, and the secretary certainly, that, unfortunately, our policy on Cuba was a millstone around our neck. If you recall the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, there were two issues on which the press focused on criticism of the United States and isolation of the United States with the region. And the two issues were drug policy and Cuba.

If you look just a little of two years later, you have a special general assemble in Guatemala of the Organization of American States on drug policy in which we came together on a unanimously approved statement on drug policy with none of the rancor that you've seen in the past. And now you have a change in our Cuba policy that is universally supported in the hemisphere, even by countries with whom we have difficult relationships right now.

BLOCK: I'd like to have you respond to the argument made by the Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, among others, who says that this deal, in his words, vindicates brutal behavior and sets a dangerous precedent. He says it invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. He's referring there to Alan Gross. As a top diplomat, do you share those concerns that this could set a bad precedent?

JACOBSON: Well, certainly, had we exchanged Mr. Gross for the three Cuban agents, that would have been a terrible precedent. But I think that what you really need to focus on is the fact that the part of this deal that made the rest of the things possible was a rather standard, used in the past, spy-for-spy swap. Without that possibility, it would have been very difficult to do the rest of what was done on Wednesday or to get Mr. Gross home.

BLOCK: I imagine that critics would say that bad actors might not be making the same distinction that you're drawing here, and that that's the dangerous precedent - how this is perceived.

JACOBSON: I understand that that's what some may be saying. But I also think you have to look at the possibility that there are bad actors who are saying it is possible that the United States is willing to engage in a dialogue if governments are willing to take steps to change their own behavior. And when leaders tell us that they think this is a lesson for other leaders around the hemisphere who may not be engaging productively with the United States, that too is a lesson here that you can engage with the United States, and should, and not blame the United States for all of your problems.

BLOCK: We've been hearing from Roberta Jacobson. She's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and will be leading the U.S. delegation to Havana next month. Secretary Jacobson, thanks so much.

JACOBSON: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.