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Mar 18, 7:22 PM EDT

Questions over US-Cuba talks amid Venezuela dispute


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HAVANA (AP) -- It has been a strange few days for U.S.-Cuba relations that are meant to be on the mend.

First, the two sides emerged from surprise talks in Havana on Monday with nothing to say about progress toward reopening embassies after more than a half-century hiatus. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen returned to Washington as quietly as she arrived.

Cuban President Raul Castro, meanwhile, jetted off to a summit of leftist leaders in Venezuela on Tuesday to lambast U.S. policy toward Venezuela, his island's top ally. The U.S. recently declared the South American nation a threat to its national security and levied sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials.

The whole thing had some observers scratching their heads, wondering whether there is now an obstacle blocking the road to detente.

The two countries announced their intent to normalize diplomatic relations on Dec. 17, but progress has been slow going in the intervening three months. The next steps in the rapprochement are widely seen to be the reopening of embassies and the removal of Cuba from a State Department list of terror-sponsoring nations.

Given the desire to turn the page expressed by both Castro and President Barack Obama, many people had been expecting at least one of those issues to have been resolved by now.

"The jockeying may be to strengthen bargaining hands and/or to parlay pressures from domestic hardliners," said Richard Feinberg, a former White House adviser on Latin America during the Clinton administration who now teaches international political economy at the University of California, San Diego.

"They're entering a tricky phase," said Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba who also served in his country's embassy in Caracas.

If the sides don't announce some progress ahead of the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas, "then clearly people are going to begin to talk about whether the thing will be stalled for a period of time or might even go backward," Hare said.

But he said the slow pace and lack of regular updates are probably not indications of any serious problems, and he noted that Cuba has a reputation of taking its time in negotiations.

"Once you go public, and of course these sessions have been very, very public ... you get much more media pressure to give a running commentary on what happens," Hare said.

The earlier two negotiating sessions - one in Havana, one in Washington - were much higher profile, with officials holding news conferences and staging photo ops. This time, the Cuban and U.S. sides said only that the discussions were "professional" and "constructive."

Issues being discussed include staff levels at diplomatic missions and current limitations on the movement of diplomats in each other's countries as well as Cuba's difficulties with banking in the U.S.

An official with knowledge of the talks confirmed to The Associated Press that Venezuela came up in Monday's talks. The official said the Cuban delegation expressed essentially the same concerns in private that it has in public, but the issue did not cause any real tension or complicate the discussions. The official lacked authorization to discuss the matter publicly and agreed to talk about the session only on condition of anonymity.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the U.S. declaration against Venezuela.

Castro reacted to the U.S. move by saying: "The U.S. needs to understand once and for all that it can't seduce or buy Cuba, just as it can't intimidate Venezuela. Our unity is indestructible."

Carlos Alzugaray, a Cuban academic and longtime diplomat, said Washington's differences with Venezuela and Havana's support of its ally should not be a major impediment.

"For me, those are the accepted rules of the game," he said. "It will always have some impact, but I don't see any signal from Cuba that it is not still interested in moving forward, nor do I see it from the United States."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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