U.S. willing to change pro-democracy programs in Cuba

Cuba's president Raul Castro talks to the media next to Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (L) during the departure of French President Francois Hollande at Jose Marti airport in Havana May 12, 2015. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa (Reuters)

By Lesley Wroughton WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday indicated its willingness to change pro-democracy programs which it organizes in Cuba and which are condemned by Havana, removing one of the biggest impediments to restoring diplomatic ties. A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters before talks with Cuban representatives on Thursday, said the sides had narrowed differences over reopening embassies since an agreement was reached in December to renew diplomatic relations. The official said another obstacle had been removed after Cuba found a U.S. bank that would handle the accounts of a restored Cuban embassy in Washington. The official declined to name the bank. M&T Bank Corp canceled its services with Cuba's Interests Section in Washington in 2013 and Havana blamed the move on U.S. sanctions. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the democracy programs "have changed over time, and they will continue to change over time to reflect a reality, whether that reality is on the ground in Cuba or in the United States." The programs include courses in journalism and information technology at the U.S. mission in Havana. The United States sees them as normal diplomatic functions, but Cuban President Raul Castro said last week that they were "illegal" training for government opponents. The official said the programs have already been adapted but the United States would not halt them because they were the most direct way of supporting ordinary Cubans. The talks in Washington on Thursday are the fourth round since U.S. President Barack Obama and Castro agreed on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1961 during the Cold War. They will focus on upgrading the "interests sections" in Washington and Havana to embassies. Washington also wants an end to restrictions on the movement of its diplomats in Havana and the removal of Cuban security police around its premises. Cuba signaled on Monday that it was ready to move ahead, saying it did not see any obstacles. In the U.S. Congress lawmakers who oppose and support close ties with Havana introduced Cuba-related legislation. Two Republican senators who oppose normalizing ties, Marco Rubio of Florida and Louisiana’s David Vitter, introduced a bill that would make ending restrictions on travel and trade conditional on Cuba resolving billions of dollars in claims over property seized during the island’s communist revolution. Another group of senators introduced a bill that would open the way for U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to provide services and devices in Cuba. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle.; Editing by David Storey, Andre Grenon and Andrew Hay)