US and Cuban officials have met in Havana for new talks on restoring diplomatic ties, but their historic rapprochement was strained by tensions over Venezuela.
The top US diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, met her Cuban counterpart Josefina Vidal on Monday behind closed doors for a third round of talks on normalizing relations, but the atmosphere of reconciliation was marred by protests over Washington’s stance on Venezuela.
As Jacobson touched down in the Cuban capital late Sunday, thousands of people attended a concert and rally to “support the Bolivarian (Venezuelan) people and government” in their mounting row with the United States.
US relations with Venezuela, a key Cuban ally, have been on a downward spiral since President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington in February of sponsoring a coup attempt against him – a claim Washington denies.
After President Barack Obama slapped new sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of an opposition crackdown in the wake of the coup allegation, Maduro responded by recalling Venezuela’s envoy to Washington and lashing out at the “imperialist elite.”
The elected socialist then ordered 10 days of “defensive military exercises” and asked Venezuela’s National Assembly to grant him the power to rule by decree on defense and public safety matters – a request voted through by his legislative majority Sunday.
The row threatens to blight the goodwill Obama cultivated throughout Latin America by moving to restore ties with Cuba.
It has also exposed the gaps that still remain between the United States and Cuba, which has relied heavily on Venezuelan oil money since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Havana called Obama’s new sanctions “arbitrary and aggressive.”
A senior State Department official said Washington was “disappointed” with that stance, but that “it will not have an impact on these conversations moving forward.”
Unlike the previous two rounds of talks held since the historic US-Cuban rapprochement was announced on December 17, no press conference was scheduled for this week’s meetings between Jacobson and Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat on US affairs.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said officials wanted to hash out the nuts and bolts away from the limelight.
“I think their focus is on rolling up their sleeves, and having tough discussions, and getting the work done,” she said, adding it was unclear how long the talks would last.