ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This Friday, American and Cuban diplomats resume talks on the normalization of relations. They're meeting in Washington this time. Last month, they met in Havana. Leading the U.S. side is Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson who joins us from the State Department. Thanks for joining us once again.
ROBERTA JACOBSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something you tweeted yesterday. You tweeted concerned about violent silencing of peaceful voices for change in Cuba. Is that a concern you intend to raise with the Cubans later this week?
JACOBSON: Certainly. This was, you know, something that we have seen unfortunately all too often, which is peaceful protest, peaceful demonstration, including some of the Ladies in White, and it continues to happen and we will raise it.
SIEGEL: The Ladies in White being a very prominent dissident group in Havana, of whom quite a few were arrested over the weekend. Is there a linkage between Cuban performance on human rights and these normalization talks? That is if arrests were to continue or increase, would that jeopardize these talks?
JACOBSON: Well, I think the president has made clear that we're going to go forward with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, and that's what we will be talking about this Friday.
SIEGEL: You would say just as there are many other countries in the Middle East or Asia, where the government silences its critics, we maintain embassies and that's what these talks are all about at this point.
JACOBSON: That's right, and part of the reason we say that is because diplomatic relations are not a gift. They are a way to communicate both with the Cuban government and with the Cuban people. They are not a seal of approval.
SIEGEL: Since your negotiations with the Cubans in Havana last month, Cuban President Raul Castro has publicly called for the return of Guantanamo to Cuba. He's called for an end to Radio Marti broadcasts. That's the U.S. channel that targets Cuba. Are the Cubans adding conditions to these talks as they proceed?
JACOBSON: Well, I think what the Cubans have outlined are things that they have raised and will raise as part of the ongoing discussion towards full normalization, but there are much longer-term issues that are not on the table at this time. And they are not surprises to us. In conversations that we've had with the Cubans for years, for example, on migration, they have consistently raised things like Guantanamo.
SIEGEL: These days, more Cubans have been setting out in boats for Florida than have been seen in years. Apparently they fear that normalization will end the special policy that allows any Cuban who makes it to dry land in the U.S. to stay here. Is that fear unfounded or does the very process of normalization of diplomatic relations inevitably mean normalization of immigration policy?
JACOBSON: Well, I want to be clear about a couple things. There was a significant spike in the number of Cubans who were attempting to come to the United States by sea after this December 17 announcement. That number has dropped off back to what you would call normal seasonal numbers. There were lots of rumors that along with the president's December 17 announcement would come some change or doing away with the Cuban Adjustment Act. And there were real fears that that might take place imminently. That is not the case.
SIEGEL: Let's take away the word imminently. Is it a reasonable fear to think that at the end of this process, a Cuban would come to America the way a Dominican or a Haitian would come to America?
JACOBSON: Well, I think - I think one of the things you have to remember is there were reasons for the Cuban Adjustment Act to be put in place in the first place. The underlying reasons were persecution in Cuba and the authoritarian government or state. And so I think one could look out into the future and see a different Cuba and no longer the need for the Cuban Adjustment Act. But it's not something that I see as on the table right now in our conversations.
SIEGEL: And so the dry foot policy, therefore, for the foreseeable future remains in effect.
SIEGEL: The Cubans obviously suspect the U.S. in wanting regime change in Havana. And there's a lot of history behind that suspicion. In recent years, the U.S. has spoken of transition, not succession, of Cuban leadership. Is that the policy of this administration?
JACOBSON: Well, I think the most important thing that we can do right now is focus on empowering the Cuban people to make sure that they have the wherewithal to decide their own future. So I think the most important tool that they have to have this good information, for example, right? And so that's one of the most important things that the president's announcement helps get them. The telecom regulatory changes and the - hopefully - the opening of more Internet access and information is exactly the kind of thing that Cubans need to have to make their own decisions in the future.
SIEGEL: Do you really think that at some point there's going to be a relationship with Cuba just as there is with the Dominican Republic? Or is there just something unique about our relationship with Cuba?
JACOBSON: I mean, I think a lot of people are afraid to believe it can be normal again 'cause it's been so long. This is not going to be easy and the United States isn't giving up its principles in moving forward. But I remain optimistic about moving towards normal. I don't know whether that'll happen, you know, certainly while I'm still working as a diplomat. But I think we'll get there. I really do. And I'm impressed by the Cubans and the Cuban-Americans and others in Congress and elsewhere who really want to work for that.
SIEGEL: That's Roberta Jacobson, who is the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. She's leading U.S. talks with Cuba which resume on Friday in Washington. Secretary Jacobson, thanks for talking with us.
JACOBSON: Thank you so much, Robert.
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