Washington and Havana are going to take a crack at speeding up snail mail by negotiating direct correspondence, underscoring the stepped-up dialogue between the two nations, U.S. officials say.
Direct mail to Cuba ended in 1963, at the height of the Cold War.
Now diplomats have agreed to meet in Havana to discuss renewing direct mail, ending the rerouting through Canada or Mexico.
It's an issue that has stymied presidents from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, as the Cuban government stalled previous measures. The decision comes on the heels of migration talks this summer in New York, and experts say it is not only a big step for divided families but is a politically critical move.
``A letter that supposedly should take three days to be in the hands of the recipient can take three months, maybe four,'' said Cuban writer Manuel Vázquez Portal. ``For practical purposes, this is stupid, because if I want to reach out to my family in Cuba, I call them or send them an e-mail. But this has bigger meaning.''
The Cuban government has long stalled the talks because the government said it feared radical exiles would send mail bombs.
It also insisted that the mail be a larger part of the normalization of commercial air traffic, which Washington resisted because of the almost half-century-old U.S. trade embargo with Cuba. Only charter flights operate between the two nations.
``Mail does not arrive by magic,'' Vázquez Portal said. ``It comes on planes and ships, and the arrival of mail on more planes and ships does mean something, so this move has a very important commercial and political intent. This is the tip of the iceberg.''
In April, President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions that limited how often Cuban Americans can visit relatives on the island. He also ended restrictions on cash remittances to the island, but the administration has yet to publish the regulations that would allow the cash to flow.
July's migration talks ended a five-year suspension. Bush stopped the talks in 2004, saying Cuba was not cooperating.
But in 2002, Bush also offered to renew direct mail. And Clinton did the same in 1999.
``The big difference this time is that it seems Cuba has agreed to talk about it, and they never agree to talk about it,'' said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia research center. ``Within the context of Cuba and all the divided families, this is important. It's also very symbolically important.''
The U.S. State Department declined to discuss the issue.
To be sure, the mail and immigration discussions do not indicate an end to decades of hostility.
Cuba accused the Obama administration of following in the footsteps of the Bush administration and violating U.S. law by denying a visa to Adriana Pérez, the wife of convicted intelligence agent Gerardo Hernández, the Associated Press reported. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon circulated Monday, Cuba's U.N. Ambassador Abelardo Moreno Fernández demanded that the U.S. government grant Pérez a humanitarian visa so that she may visit her husband.
Hernández is one of five intelligence agents convicted of spying for the Cuban government.
The ambassador said that on July 15, after a wait of 95 days, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana denied Pérez a visa for the 10th time, using ``the crude argument'' that she ``constitutes a threat to the stability and national security of the United States,'' the Associated Press said.
The State Department has said Pérez does not qualify for a visa, because she was implicated in the espionage case that ultimately ensnared her husband.
The Cubans called it ``a systematic and flagrant violation of human rights and an act of torture against Gerardo Hernández.''