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  HOME | Cuba

U.S., Cuba Resume Migration Talks Amid Row Over Jailed Contractor

WASHINGTON – Immigration talks between the United States and Cuba this week led to no substantive advances, even as Washington called on Havana to release a U.S. contractor jailed on suspicion of spying.

Although both countries characterized Friday’s meeting in Washington as positive, neither of the two sides reported any significant progress.

The United States reaffirmed its commitment to “promote safe, legal and orderly migration” and called for the “immediate release” of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba since December 9, the State Department said in a press release.

The delegations for the third round of negotiations since a 2009 decision to resume the talks were led by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly and Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, who said a fourth meeting will be held in Havana in late 2010.

The deputy minister, meanwhile, was quoted as saying in a statement released by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington that progress was made in the talks on ways to combat people trafficking.

But the statement added that human smuggling will not be eliminated and the goal of safe, legal and orderly migration between the two countries will not be achieved while a policy granting permanent residence to Cubans reaching U.S. soil remains in place.

That so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, the result of a 1995 revision of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain and apply for residency while mandating the repatriation of those intercepted at sea, even if they are just meters from the shore.

Rodriguez said that policy “violates the spirit” of the migratory accords and “is the main catalyst for illegal departures from Cuba and people trafficking,” since would-be emigrants are motivated by the hope of being able to remain in the United States.

For its part, the United States called on Cuban authorities to ensure that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana is able to operate “fully and effectively” and “monitor the welfare of repatriated migrants.”

The two countries signed a migration accord in 1994 after an exodus of 35,000 Cubans rafters in July and August of that year. Under that agreement, Washington grants a minimum of 20,000 emigrant visas per year to Cuban citizens and must repatriate Cuban illegal immigrants intercepted at sea.

The Cuban government, for its part, agrees not to take any reprisals against illegal emigrants who are intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to the island.

The Cuba Migration Talks were resumed in 2009, five years after being suspended under then-President George W. Bush’s administration.

His successor, Barack Obama, has sought to improve relations with the island with measures such as the lifting of restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the communist-ruled island and the possible resumption of direct mail service.

Obama, however, has said that he will not consider ending the 48-year-old economic embargo against Cuba in the absence of democratic reforms by the government in Havana.

Steps toward a possible diplomatic thaw were interrupted by the arrest of Gross, an employee of a company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote democracy on the island.

Gross, 60, has been jailed for distributing laptop computers, mobile phones and other communications equipment to groups opposed to the Cuban government, according to Havana, which also accuses him of espionage.

Washington denies Gross had links to U.S. intelligence agencies and says he was merely helping Cuban citizens connect to the Internet, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maintains that his arrest is harming U.S.-Cuba relations.

In addition to the tensions surrounding that case, U.S. criticism of Cuba over its lack of respect for human rights and freedom of expression continues to raise hackles on the island.

Washington, which repeatedly demands that Cuba release dozens of political prisoners, also harshly criticized the island’s authorities following the death in February of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 85-day hunger strike.

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