US says first talks with Cuba on renewing ties to be held Jan 21-22

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States and Cuba will meet on Jan 21-22 for their first talks on normalising diplomatic relations disrupted for half a century, a US official said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Roberta Jacobson will lead the US delegation to the groundbreaking talks in Havana, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Ms Jacobson is set to be the highest-ranking US official to visit the Caribbean island in several decades. She last set foot in Cuba in 2011 when she held a lower office at the State Department.

But Ms Psaki cautioned it would be the first step in a process set in motion last month by President Barack Obama which should lead to the two countries reopening embassies and appointing new ambassadors.

Obama ordered his administration to initiate steps to normalise relations with Cuba and is hoping to persuade Congress to lift the 54-year-old US trade embargo which he has described as “self-defeating.”

But critics have raised concerns about continuing abuses of human rights by the communist authorities on the island of 11 million. The government does not guarantee basic rights such as assembly and free speech; political parties other than the Communist Party are illegal.