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Havana’s diplomats will invite exiles to talks

The Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington will host a meeting with “respectful” Cubans living in the United States, the latest sign of a Raúl Castro effort to warm relations with some of the estimated 2 million Cubans living abroad.

Castro’s push already has sparked a string of opinion columns praising it as a step toward reconciliation, cautiously welcoming it or attacking it as a Cuban government ploy to grab more exile money.

A statement Wednesday by the Cuban Interests Section said the 1st National Encounter of Cubans Living in the United States will be held April 28 in Washington. Details will be sent “at the proper time to those invited.”

The gathering will bring together Cubans living in the United States “who have respectful links to their country, being conscious of the need to defend its sovereignty and national identity,” the statement noted.

Participants will discuss “the normalization of relations between the nation and its émigrés, as well as the impact of the U.S. hostile policy and blockade [embargo] toward Cuba,” it added.

The announcement comes as the Cuban government still bans a large number of émigrés from returning to the island — the exact number is unknown but estimates range from 77,000 to 300,000 — because of their opposition to the communist system or because they left the country illegally.

Also on the Washington gathering’s agenda: “The situation of the ‘Five Anti-terrorist Fighters’ unjustly jailed in the United States’ ” — five Cuban spies convicted in 2001 after a trial in Miami. One of them is serving two life sentences for murder conspiracy, stemming from his role in the Cuban air force’s 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes that killed all four aboard.

The announcement painted the gathering as part of the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and émigrés, launched with a controversial dialogue in 1978 and followed by the several “Nation and Emigration” conferences held from 1994 to 2010.

Those gatherings, tightly controlled by the Cuban government, usually lure 300-400 Cubans to Havana from as far away as Pakistan. The vast majority of Cuban émigrés live in the United States.

But the Washington gathering also fits within the Castro government’s low-key but clearly visible push to improve relations with some Cubans living abroad and overhaul regulations that have long punished those who emigrate.

Castro has said it is time to reunite and salve historical wounds, but skeptics note that Cuba would benefit from increased remittances and investments in newly opened areas, such as second homes, from citizens who live abroad.

Cubans once forced to hand their property over to the government when they left the island can now sell it or hand it over to anyone they wish, and an estimated 400,000 émigrés visited the island last year, a sizeable increase from 2011.

A report published recently in the Cuban media suggested that tourism industry officials should put together special packages to attract more émigrés, already the second largest group of visitors after Canadians.

And three Cuban authors, speaking at the International Book Festival in Havana this month, took up the thorny issue of locally publishing some of the works of artists who live abroad but have kept any criticism of the Cuban government sufficiently discreet to avoid being banned from the island.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Cuba will allow the entry of some exiles previously banned so they can take part in Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Havana and Santiago de Cuba from March 26-28.

Havana’s outreach to Cubans living abroad sparked a heated exchange of opinions on newspaper op-ed pages and Web sites that focus on Cuba issues, such as Diario de Cuba, Penultimos Dias and Cubaencuentro.

Carlos Saladrigas, a wealthy Cuban-American businessman, wrote in January that the diaspora should “board the trains of change in Cuba If one hopes to influence, or be part of the solution, one has to be part of the process.”

El Nuevo Herald columnist Alejandro Armengol, who lives in Spain, wrote that Cuban artists on both sides of the revolution should “look forward and not lock themselves in the past.”

But Cuban artist Geandy Pavon, who lives in New Jersey, argued that exiles who tone down their criticism of the communist system in order to improve their relations with the island may be guilty of “cowardice disguised as brotherhood and reconciliation.”

“It’s true that there’s nothing new in calling a dictatorship a dictatorship. It’s also true that the same old story is boring,” Pavon added. But the blame for the hostility between the government and exiles “is not on those of us who have decided to call things by their name. The blame is on the dictatorship, and those who don’t dare call it that so they can benefit as long as it lasts.”

Orlando Gutierrez, head of the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, said Castro’s approach to Cubans living abroad was a fraud and repeat of what Cuban governments tried when they were hit with economic crisis in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

“They are not very original,” he said. “Every time they need money, they milk the exiles.”