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One Year After Pledge To Fix Relations, U.S. Continues Diplomatic Dance With Cuba


A year ago, President Obama made this stunning announcement.


BARACK OBAMA: The United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.

CORNISH: He said the United States' decades-old approach to the communist island was not working. The new approach was to start talks with the goal of normalizing relations. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the two nations are making progress but still have their work cut out.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The diplomatic choreography has been smooth so far. On a sweltering summer day, the Cubans raise their flag at the newly reopened embassy here in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: Soon after, three retired U.S. Marines who had taken the U.S. flag down in 1961 were back in Havana for an emotional flag raising there, as Francis Michael East (ph) recounted to NPR.

FRANCIS MICHAEL EAST: Fifty-four years - didn't think it was ever going to happen. And when they gave the flag to the Marines, that was the greatest moment of my life when that flag went up.

KELEMEN: Two White House officials negotiated with Cuba in secret for a year before Washington and Havana exchanged prisoners last December and announced a new course for relations. Since then, lots of others got involved, says Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution.

TED PICCONE: You now have the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, the Agricultural Department, Department of Homeland Security, many other agencies engaged, sending Cabinet secretaries and really trying to use this window of opportunity to open the door and to get to know each other because it's basically been completely frozen for decades.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has just one more year to make changes to U.S. policy in a way that it hopes the next U.S. president won't reverse. The lead Cuban negotiator, Josefina Vidal, who met with reporters on a recent trip here to Washington, is certainly counting on that.


JOSEFINA VIDAL: There are many things that still can be done through executive authority by the White House in order to dismantle important aspects of the embargo that are not regulated by law. So they are matters of sovereign executive decision by the president and the White House.

KELEMEN: The top U.S. diplomat in Havana says Cuba has to take some steps too in order to take advantage of this opening. Charge D'Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis addressed reporters by phone this week from Havana.

JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: Just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for its citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade and access information online.

KELEMEN: He says more Americans are going to Cuba these days and he believes the increased trade opportunities are helping to promote Cuba's budding private sector.

DELAURENTIS: Our experience over the past year is that engagement and not isolation is the most effective way to promote U.S interests and values in Cuba.

KELEMEN: Ana Quintana has her doubt. She's with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and says diplomatic engagement only works with willing partners.

ANA QUINTANA: I'm all for engagement, but the Cuban government clearly has shown that they're not willing to comply with the standards that are the norms in the Western Hemisphere.

KELEMEN: Cuban authorities routinely round up activists and Quintana doesn't see the U.S. making human rights a priority anymore.

QUINTANA: This is a regime that for over 50-something years has continued its horrific record on human rights. They haven't improved, and it appears that we've kind of given up on that. That we as the United States have given up on kind of urging them towards the right direction.

KELEMEN: Even critics like Quintana, though, see some positive aspects of this new U.S. approach. She says it's raising expectations on the island for change. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.