Cuba, US meet on migration in latest sign of thawing ties

By Marc Frank, Reuters

Posted at Jan 10 2014 07:49 AM | Updated as of Jan 10 2014 03:49 PM

HAVANA - Officials from the United States and Cuba met in Havana on Thursday to discuss longstanding migration accords in the latest sign of a new collaborative spirit between the Cold War foes.

The migration talks are the highest public contact between the two governments which do not have diplomatic relations, and recent meetings have been increasingly constructive, officials say.

The U.S. delegation was headed by Edward Alex Lee, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. There was no immediate confirmation from Cuba as to who led its delegation.

It was the second such meeting since July 2013. Under accords signed in 1994 and 1995, both governments pledged to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States and meet every six months to review the issue.

Over the past half century, thousands of Cubans have died trying to cross the treacherous Florida Straits on flimsy boats and homemade rafts.

The United States now accepts about 20,000 Cubans annually via legal immigration and also takes in those who manage to reach U.S. shores. But under the "wet foot, dry foot policy" it turns back Cubans picked up at sea.

U.S. immigration authorities reported 13,000 Cubans crossed the Mexican border and were accepted as residents in 2013, along with thousands more who visited the country and decided to stay.

The United States issued 24,727 Cuban immigrant visas in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2013, compared with 26,720 the previous year, while the number of visitor visas more than doubled to 29,927, compared with 14,362 in 2012.

The two governments have also held talks in recent months on resuming direct postal service, coordination in containing maritime disasters such as oil spills and regularly collaborate on drug trafficking interdiction.

State department and Cuban officials have told Reuters recent contacts have been cordial with little of the customary rhetoric from both sides, symbolized by President Barack Obama's and Raul Castro's handshake in South Africa in December.

U.S. and Cuban officials overcame a series of potentially divisive incidents last year with mutual displays of pragmatism rarely seen since Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

They included Cuba's decision not to offer a safe haven to fugitive former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is sought by the United States for alleged espionage, and the diplomatically deft U.S. handling of a North Korean ship carrying Cuban weapons in possible violation of U.N. sanctions.

The migration and postal talks were suspended in 2003 by President George W. Bush. The talks were briefly revived by the Obama administration in 2009, but were suspended again in 2011, when American contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.

Gross' arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 stalled a brief period of detente in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama took office early in 2009 and quickly loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban Americans with relatives in Communist-run Cuba.

Cuba relaxed its own restrictions on travel in January, increasing the number of Cubans able to travel legally to the United States and allowing prominent dissidents to travel abroad freely since then.

The United States recently began issuing five-year visas to some Cubans, instead of the usual six months.

The migration talks have often included other issues, such as Gross's detention and the fate of five Cuban intelligence officials arrested more than 15 years ago in Florida, four of whom remain behind bars.