US-Cuba migration talks to be held Wednesday in Havana

U.S. and Cuban government officials will meet in Havana on Wednesday for the second round of migration talks since the Obama administration resumed the contacts in July, according to well informed sources.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment but last summer said the talks do not represent a change in U.S. policy toward the island and are consistent with Washington’s efforts to ensure safe migration between the two nations.

President George W. Bush suspended the migration talks, held twice a year since 1995, in 2003. The Obama administration resumed them in 2009 but suspended them again after Cuba arrested U.S. government contractor Alan P. Gross on Dec. 3, 2009.

The talks resumed again on July 17, 2013 in Washington, without any official explanation of why they had been suspended or why they were starting up again.

The second round will start Wednesday in Havana, according to sources who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to make the information public. There was no indication of how many days they would last.

Under U.S.-Cuba migration accords in 1994 and 1995 — which followed the 1994 exodus of more than 30,000 people on homemade rafts — Washington promised to issue at least 20,000 migrant visas to Cubans per year. The two nations also agreed to meet periodically and work toward “safe, legal and orderly migration.”

The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana issued 24,727 immigrant visas in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2013, a dip compared to 26,720 in FY2012, according to U.S. government figures. The number of tourist visas issued in the same period more than doubled, from 14,362 to 29,927.

An El Nuevo Herald report on Dec. 9 estimated that at least 44,000 Cuban migrants arrived in the United States, both legally and illegally, during the 12-month period, the highest total in a decade.

State Department spokesman William Ostick noted in July that 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.”

Those talks were led by Eduard Alex Lee, then acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban foreign ministry director general for U.S. affairs.

Resumption of migration talks was widely perceived as part of an Obama administration effort to make improvements around the edges of U.S.-Cuba relations, largely frozen by Gross’ continued imprisonment.

After the July meeting, U.S. officials repeated their call for the release of Gross while Cuban officials continued to complain that friendly U.S migration policies for Cubans are luring away island citizens.

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

Obama administration officials insist that there can be no significant warming of U.S.-Cuba relations unless Gross goes home. Havana has offered to swap him for four convicted Cuban spies in U.S. prisons, but Washington has rejected that deal.

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