State Department confirms resumption of migration talks with Havana

The U.S. State Department confirmed Wednesday that U.S. and Cuban officials will meet July 17 in Washington to resume long-suspended migration talks, but said the talks do not represent a change in U.S. policy toward the island.

“Continuing to ensure secure migration between the U.S. and Cuba is consistent with our interests in promoting greater freedoms and increased respect for human rights in Cuba,” department spokesman William Ostick said.

“I can confirm that on July 17, representatives of the Department of State are scheduled to meet with representatives of the government of Cuba to discuss migration issues,” Ostick added.

The resumption of the migration talks, first reported Tuesday by El Nuevo Herald, is viewed as an effort by the Obama administration to improve relations with Havana, hamstrung by Cuba’s jailing of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross since 2009.

The spokesman noted that under the terms of U.S.-Cuba accords in 1994 and 1995 — which followed the 1994 balsero crisis that saw 30,000 people flee Cuba in homemade rafts — the two countries agreed to work toward “safe, legal and orderly migration.”

The agreements also called for periodic reviews of the implementation of those accords.

President George W. Bush suspended the twice-annual reviews in 2003. The Obama administration resumed them in 2009 but suspended them again after Gross was arrested in Havana late that year.

Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated communications equipment paid for by the U.S. government in what Havana views as a thinly veiled effort to topple the communist-run government.

Obama administration officials have said repeatedly that there can be no significant improvement in bilateral relations until Gross is freed. Havana has offered to swap him for four convicted Cuban spies in U.S. prisons, but Washington has rejected that deal.

Opponents of warmer U.S. relations with Havana have decried the resumption of the migration talks as a unilateral Obama concession to Cuba at a time when Gross is being held in a Havana prison.

But Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, said the migration talks and a separate round of bilateral meetings this week in Washington on direct mail service, suspended since the 1960s, were positive developments.

“The resumption of these talks shows that the two sides are looking for cooperation and dialogue while trying to figure out a solution for Alan Gross,” he said. Regardless of the results, “just the fact that they are having them is positive.”

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