Still strained relations? U.S. embassy in Cuba likely to operate in restrictive environment

Thursday's talks in Washington will explore terms for reopening embassies in Havana and Washington as part of a deal to re-establish diplomatic ties announced in December by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro

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A new U.S. embassy in Havana is likely to operate with controls on staff travel and other restrictions similar to those on American diplomats in other countries with authoritarian governments, Washington's chief Cuba negotiator said on Wednesday.

But Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, speaking on the eve of the latest round of talks with Cuba on restoring diplomatic ties, said Washington was determined to minimize restrictions.

Thursday's talks in Washington will explore terms for reopening embassies in Havana and Washington as part of a deal to re-establish diplomatic ties announced in December by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a U.S. embassy would not reopen in Havana unless American diplomats could travel outside the capital and Cubans were allowed access to the mission without being harassed by security police.

State Department officials often point to China and Vietnam as possible models. In China, travel restrictions vary around the country, but in general U.S. diplomats must get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Vietnam imposes restrictions on travel in some provinces, although U.S. embassy officials do not need approval for personal travel.

Jacobson said that Washington would insist on the security of deliveries through the diplomatic pouch and said Washington wanted to increase the number of U.S. diplomats from the number now at the interests section.

Republicans and Democrats on the committee expressed concern that there had been little change in Cuba's treatment of dissidents or progress on economic reforms since December.

Jacobson acknowledged this, but said it was only through a policy of engagement that Washington could push for change.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban descent and a critic of Obama's policy, said the administration appeared to have made more diplomatic overtures toward Cuba than the other way around.

"President Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still have their fists real tight," Menendez said, referring to the current president and his older brother, former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Clearing one obstacle to better relations, Stonegate , a small Florida bank, opened an account for the Cuban government, according to a source familiar with the state's banking industry.

Cuba had been unable to open a bank account for operations at its interests section in Washington because American banks were wary of regulations and potential fines triggered by the sanctions on the communist island.

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