State Department legal adviser gives insight into complex U.S.-Cuba relations

Attorney was part of team that implemented Obama's policy change

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Relations between the United States and Cuba have changed more in the last year than they had in more than half a century. But the work much of it legal in nature is far from completed.

"These initiatives are just the beginning," said State Department legal adviser Anna Melamud. "In order for the U.S. and Cuba to completely 'normalize,' there's much more work to be done."

Melamud presented "Changing Course: Navigating the Legal Waters in Current U.S.-Cuba Relations" on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Wayne State University Law School. The lecture was sponsored by the law school's Program for International Legal Studies.

In addition to her insights into some of the complex legal issues, she included some poignant human anecdotes in her recollections.

"There were three Marines who took down the embassy flag in 1961," Melamud said. "We were able to identify those Marines and bring them down to Cuba to raise the flag again 55 years later."

Melamud also recounted her surprise at how what appeared to be a routine job was transformed quickly into a history-making one.

"When I took over my responsibilities at the State Department last October, I had no idea that I would be doing anything different than my predecessors had done for decades," she said. "Six weeks after I took the job, President Barack Obama announced the most sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba in 54 years. I had the honor to become part of the team that implemented that."

As a result of Obama's announcement in December that the U.S. would seek normalization of relations with Cuba, the government has worked toward re-establishing diplomatic relations, re-opening embassies, relaxing the long-standing embargo and reviewing Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, relations deteriorated rapidly. In 1961, the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and began covert efforts to topple the Communist regime.

Melamud is an attorney-adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs with the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser and has been lead attorney on legal issues arising from the evolving relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

She earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and her bachelor of arts degree from New York University. After working as a senior associate at WilmerHale LLP in Washington, D.C., Melamud joined the State Department's Office of International Claims and Investment Disputes, where she represented the U.S. in arbitration before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague.

Melamud described her role at State for the students and faculty attending and what an attorney pursuing that role could expect.

"The largest role for the Office of the Legal Advisor at State is transforming policy ideas into reality," she said. "Our job is to help policy makers create the policy they want within the confines of the law. For our office, it's usually international law issues, but it's also conforming to U.S. domestic law. We're also 'the ones with the pen.' We have responsibility for drafting treaties and agreements, making sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed."

Melamud stressed that diplomatic engagement doesn't equal full engagement.

"It's important to emphasize that the embargo is still in place and only Congress can lift it," she said. "Recognizing that, the president called for a series of changes within his executive authority that would increase contact between the American and Cuban peoples."

The five decades of estrangement between the U.S. and Cuba has left a legacy of legal issues that will take considerable time to be addressed. These include big questions like wrongful death claims by both sides down to small ones like getting Cuban diplomats in Washington access to banking. Other issues include state terrorism, fugitives and extradition, travel between the two countries, confiscated property and assets and human rights.

Melamud suggested that the work might be taken up eventually by some of the students in the audience.

"In short, although I've the privilege of being part of this process in the initial phases, I'm sure there will be plenty of work remaining to be done by all of you."

Published: Mon, Oct 26, 2015

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