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.
Four rounds were held but the talks were suspended again in 2011 after Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated communications equipment paid for by a USAID pro-democracy program.
The most recent talks on direct mail were held in September 2009 — the year the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and limits on their money transfers to the island. Bisa Williams, then U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, met with Cuban officials in Havana to discuss technical aspects of resuming direct mail service.
At the time, the relationship between Havana and Washington seemed to be warming.
But the arrest of Gross in December 2009 and his subsequent conviction froze any further opening toward Cuba, although the Obama administration further tweaked travel restrictions in 2011 by reviving and expanding people-to-people cultural trips to Cuba for Americans.
Although the U.S. government has pressed for the release of Gross, Havana has seemed more interested in a swap for the release of five Cubans convicted in 2000 of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami and military installations. Federal prosecutors contended the men’s spying led to the shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four members of the exile group in 1996. The Cuban government, meanwhile, considers USAID pro-democracy programs to be subversive.
Cuban observers say the stalemate over Gross has been an obstacle to any further opening with Cuba despite recent Havana’s recent travel and economic reforms.
Although the Cuban Democracy Act, which Congress approved in 1992, is generally thought of as tightening the embargo, it does contain provisions in support of the Cuban people and directs the U.S. Postal Service to “take such actions as are necessary to provide direct mail service to and from Cuba.’’
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to move things forward,’’ said spokeswoman Jen Psaki at a U.S. State Department briefing the day before the direct mail talks began.
But Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the mail talks aren’t in the interest of the United States. She also predicted the migration talks would go nowhere.
“There is no reason to have this talk because the ones not complying with the mail accords from years ago are the Castro thugs,’’ she said in a statement. “The regime is once again manipulating the U.S. administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and make further concessions. Meanwhile, a U.S. citizen languishes unjustly in a Cuban prison and brave freedom Cuban activists are risking their lives while on hunger strikes to protest the island tyranny.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, concurred. “We look forward to the day the Obama administration stops rewarding the Castro regime for taking an American hostage and for its dramatic increase in repression.”
However, Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said his exile organization favors the mail talks. “It’s been our position for quite some time that we favor anything that improves the relationship with the people of Cuba,’’ he said.
“It’s interesting that the Cuban government is now willing to sit down for these talks,’’ said Hernández.
Advocates of improving relations with Havana have been urging the White House to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that support international terrorism as an opening gambit for Gross’ release.
Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now director of the Cuba project at the Center for International Policy, said he had hoped that the Obama administration would have taken steps beyond the mail and migration talks to repair the tattered relationship with Havana. But he added, “It’s something.’’
The 2009 measures to open travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans were far more significant, Smith said.