HAVANA - Cuba and the United States Wednesday launched historic talks to shed their 50 years of Cold War-era hostility and take the first steps toward opening diplomatic relations and launching ties in trade and tourism.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, arrived in Havana to head the US delegation. She is the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Cuba in nearly 40 years.
Jacobson will be focusing on President Barack Obama's initiative to open respective embassies in both capitals. The talks that would last through Friday are to set the stage in the next few months for a trip by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
On the anvil are plans to launch regular scheduled commercial flights, banking and credit, mail service and expanded travel, officials said. The White House also hopes that Cuba will permit Internet companies to create service accessible across the island.
A congressional delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., an advocate of normalizing relations, returned Monday night from the communist island. Leahy told MSNBC on Tuesday that it could take a year or longer for some of the proposed changes to be realized.
A number of issues are to be on the table: exchanging ambassadors; lifting restrictions on Cuban and U.S. diplomatic personnel in each other's country; fugitives and convicts on both sides of the 90-mile-wide Florida straits; property disputes; and financial and technological deals that will be necessary for full business interaction.
U.S. officials are to also seek the lifting of restrictions on their diplomats' travel, the cap on the number of American diplomats allowed to be stationed in Havana, and the limit on shipments of supplies to the staff. They are also to request unfettered access for Cubans who want to meet with U.S. officials, a State Department official said.
After the launch of the talks, both sides complimented each other on the first day's progress despite persistent differences over migration policy.
The meetings in Havana follow the historic decision by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro in December to seek normal ties.
US companies, including the Marriott hotel chain and numerous agricultural businesses and telecommunications firms, have voiced interest in setting up business in Cuba and tap a largely virgin market that would be inflated by arriving Cuban Americans and other tourists taking advantage of lax regulations.
Obama, in his State of the Union address, said the United States is on a path toward removing economic sanctions against the communist-ruled island.
"We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new," he said.