The United States and Cuba should be able to transform their new diplomatic relationship into a deeper commercial partnership before the end of the year, with direct postal service to begin and an agreement on regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries, an American official said.
Washington also plans to publish new regulations soon making it easier for U.S. citizens to visit the island and do business with its growing ranks of independent entrepreneurs.
The official, who is familiar with the diplomacy, described significant progress in U.S.-Cuban discussions since the former Cold War foes reopened embassies in their respective countries in July. At a meeting in Havana last week, delegations from each side established a plan to settle a half-century of economic and legal disputes within the next 15 months.
While difficult questions related to human rights and compensation claims won't be resolved immediately, the official said first steps toward a broader normalization of ties would come quickly.
First, the Obama administration intends to move on its own in the coming days by releasing a new set of rules designed to loosen the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, said the official, who wasn't authorized to publicly lay out the process and demanded anonymity.
The goal is to pick up where President Barack Obama left off in January, when he eased economic restrictions on Cuba in potentially the most dramatic manner since relations between the countries broke down after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959 and the subsequent Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban missile crisis. The action sought to cut red tape for U.S. travel to Cuba, permit American companies to export telephones, computers and Internet technology, and allow U.S. firms to send supplies to private Cuban enterprises.
But efforts to expand business, tourism and other exchanges have run into an overlapping thicket of U.S. laws and hindrances, not to mention an uneven response from Cuba's political leaders, the U.S. official said.
Many U.S. travelers still need to go on supervised group trips. Routine airline service hasn't satisfied various federal conditions. Cruise ships and ferries are still trying to finalize regular maritime routes with Cuban authorities. Credit card and other companies still can't transfer payments to Cuba. Telecommunications companies haven't been able to set up shop and get equipment to the island 90 miles south of Florida. And Cuba's government isn't even running its Internet connections anywhere near capacity levels.
The new U.S. rules should help cut through some of these bureaucratic hurdles, the official said, though he declined to describe all the legal changes in concrete terms. Only Congress can end the embargo, and much of the foreseen expansion of U.S.-Cuban economic ties rests on the cooperation of the island's communist government.
The U.S.-Cuban political track moved ahead Thursday as new ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez presented his credentials to Obama at a White House ceremony. The pair briefly spoke, according to a Cuban embassy statement.
When Obama laid out his vision of improved relations eight months ago, he said his objectives were twofold: ease economic hardship in Cuba and spur its development of a private market outside of state control.
Some breakthroughs can be expected by the end of the year, according to the official.
Washington and Havana are slated to begin a "pilot program" allowing Cubans and Americans to send mail directly to one another, the official said. The governments have been speaking about re-establishing a postal link since Obama entered office, but the talks stalled when Cuba imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross. Direct mail service was halted in 1963, though letters and packages travel back and forth through countries like Canada and Mexico.
The postal program will use the Miami and Havana airports, the official said.
Also, the U.S. and Cuba should finalize an agreement on resuming direct, commercial airline routes, though the first flights wouldn't come until next year. Right now, American and Cuban travelers must fly on charter flights that are complicated to book, rarely involving an online portal and often forcing a prospective traveler to email documents and payment information back and forth with an agent. Those flying sometimes must arrive at the airport four hours in advance; strict baggage limits apply.
The official outlined a few other achievable goals before the end year: Counternarcotic cooperation that goes beyond Coast Guard interdiction efforts to include Drug Enforcement Agency partnering with its Cuban counterpart; joint environmental work involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; progress on setting up maritime passenger routes.
U.S. and Cuban officials hope to tackle their biggest differences by December 2016, before Obama leaves office, the official said.
The U.S. says Cuba must make significant democratic reforms, allowing greater space for opposition political voices and civil society movements. The fate of U.S. and Cuban fugitives beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities at home remains an outstanding issue. And each side has billions of dollars in compensation claims against the other, perhaps the biggest hindrance to the resumption of any "normal," U.S.-Cuban relationship.