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[WASHINGTON] The United States will urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions and agree to establishing US and Cuban embassies in historic talks in Havana this week aimed at restoring diplomatic ties, a senior State Department official said on Monday.
The talks on Jan 21-23 will be led by Roberta Jacobson, the top US diplomat for Latin America, in the first visit to Cuba in 38 years by a US assistant secretary of state. "We are looking forward to the Cubans lifting travel restrictions, to trying to lift the caps on the number of our diplomatic personnel, to trying to gain unimpeded shipments for our mission and to the free access to our mission by Cubans,"the official told a conference call.
The official said it was hard to know what could be achieved in the first round of normalisation talks and all depended on how far Cuba was willing to go. "It is hard to know exactly what will come out of this first conversation," the official said. "I am not oblivious to the weight of history."
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec 17 announced plans to restore relations between the Cold War foes, with a view to ending the 54-year-old US trade embargo against the communist-led island.
Cuba has released 53 political prisoners it had agreed to free and last week the United States announced the first easing of trade and investment restrictions against Havana.
Washington has said it will press Cuba to release more political prisoners and end short-term detentions.
The official said Mr Obama's new policy depends on "mutual consent" between the United States and Cuba. "We are ready to accelerate the pace of engagement as it regards our interests and the Cuban people but a lot will depend on the tolerance of the Cuban government for that engagement." The senior State Department official cautioned that the talks would not be easy and Washington intended to raise its concerns over Cuba's human rights record. The U.S. delegation hoped to meet with human rights and dissident groups while in Havana, the official added.
"It has always been our practice to engage with civil society. ... I really don't see any need to change that," the official added.