There have been signs on two fronts this week that the Obama administration is willing to work toward warmer relations with Cuba that have been all but frozen since Havana jailed a U.S. government subcontractor in 2009.
Two days of talks between U.S. and Cuban officials on resuming direct mail to Cuba — a service that has been cut off for five decades — began Tuesday in Washington, and, perhaps more significantly, sources said that U.S. and Cuban officials plan to resume migration talks in July.
Migration between the long-hostile countries has come under closer scrutiny since Havana eased its restrictions on travel abroad on Jan. 14, raising the prospects that many more Cubans will leave the island and head to the United States, legally or illegally. Cubans are no longer required to obtain an exit visa or a mandatory invitation letter from a foreign host to leave the island.
But because Cubans still need an entry visa to visit the United States, some analysts say migratory patterns could change as Cubans travel to countries that don’t require visas and then use them as a hopping-off point to enter the United States.
The migration talks will start July 17 in Washington between State Department and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials, knowledgeable sources told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.
Although the resumption of the migration and mail talks are not especially significant by themselves, they signal an effort by the Obama administration to improve its relations with Havana and provide a setting for quiet discussions on other issues.
The talks on resumption of direct mail service, which was suspended in 1963 — the same year the Kennedy administration tightened the embargo and made most travel to Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens — were held at the U.S. Postal Service headquarters and included representatives of the U.S. State Department, USPS and the Cuban government.
“We believe it [direct mail service] is consistent with our interest in promoting civil society and the free flow of information to, from and within Cuba,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Currently, there is U.S. mail service to Cuba but it travels through third countries and is considered slow and not very reliable. A number of types of service, such as express mail international, aren’t available for Cuba.
Sources said letter service, express mail and parcel service are all expected to be discussed during the talks.
Through the years, depending on the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, there have been discussions on resumption of direct mail to Cuba but none have been successful.
Migration talks between the two countries used to be a twice-a year event but President George W. Bush’s administration suspended them in 2003, complaining that Havana did not want to take up many of the issues of interest to Washington.
Those issues have included a new sign-up period for the lottery used by the U.S. government to fulfill its promise of granting 20,000 visas to Cubans per year. The last such sign-up embarrassed Havana when hundreds of thousands sent in applications.
The Obama administration agreed to resume the migration talks in 2009. One U.S. diplomatic dispatch published by WikiLeaks at the time noted that Havana would use the talks to “hammer” at the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Havana criticizes the policy as an enticement to illegal departures.