U.S. says migration talks with Cuba were “very constructive”

A U.S. State Department delegation in Havana had “very constructive” migration talks with their Cuban counterparts and again called for the release of jailed U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, department officials said Friday.

Spokesperson Jen Psaki said the delegation “highlighted areas of successful cooperation in migration, exchanging information on the interdiction of undocumented migrants, and clarifying aspects of Cuba’s recent changes in migration policy.”

“The agenda for the talks reflected longstanding U.S. priorities on Cuba-U.S. migration issues, as well as cooperation on aviation security, search and rescue, and consular document fraud,” Psaki said in a statement.

She added that the delegation also reiterated the U.S. call for the release of Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana for illegally delivering sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jews.

Edward Alex Lee, acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs and head of the delegation, told a news conference in Havana that the talks were “very constructive and have led to some positive outcomes” but gave no further details.

“Despite our historically difficult relationship, over the course of the past year and a half we have been able to speak to each other in a respectful and thoughtful manner,” Lee was quoted as saying in news reports from Havana.

Lee also told the news conference that he met with Gross, dissidents and other government officials but would not comment on the content of his conversations, according to the reports.

The talks, held on Thursday, are required under bilateral agreements signed after the 1994 “Balsero crisis,” which saw more than 30,000 people leave the island aboard homemade rafts. They are designed to promote safe and orderly migration.

A Cuban Foreign Ministry statement late Thursday said the meeting “took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling.”

The statement also reiterated Cuba’s complaints against U.S. policies it views as encouraging illegal migration from the island to the United States.

“The Cuban delegation insisted once again on the fact that ... there could not be a legal, safe and orderly migration as long as the wet foot/dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act are not derogated,” it said.

The wet foot-dry foot policy allows any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. territory to remain indefinitely. The Cuban Adjustment Act grants Cubans U.S. residency after one year and one day in the United States.

The Cuban delegation was headed by Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Foreign Ministry’s Director General for U.S. Affairs and a former senior diplomat at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington.

President George W. Bush’s administration suspended the migration talks in 2003, complaining they were making no headway on issues of U.S. interest. The Obama administration resumed them in July 2009 and they were held twice in 2010, once in 2011, and once in July 2013.

State Department officials have said the resumption of the talks in 2013 after a 2 ½ year gap does not represent a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba and is consistent with Washington’s efforts to ensure safe migration between the two nations.

But some Cuba watchers argue that they are part of a slow but steady improvement in relations between the two nations that also include talks on direct mail service and cooperation on emergency reactions to oil spills.

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