U.S.-Cuban Immigration Talks Resume, Outlook Unclear

By Maibe Gonzalez Fuentes, FI2W contributor

After six years of stalled negotiations, the U.S. and Cuba have started talking again about immigration issues affecting the two countries.

A meeting held Tuesday at UN headquarters in New York City is the most recent signal from the Obama administration that Washington wants to set a new tone with Havana. In April, the administration lifted restrictions on Cuban immigrants that wish to visit or send remittances to the island.

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Tuesday’s encounter was the first time Cuban and U.S. diplomats sat at the same table to talk about immigration issues since President George W. Bush suspended the negotiations in 2003.

Bush had cited failures by the Cuban government to honor previous immigration accords such as ensuring that Cubans with U.S. visas obtain permission to leave Cuba, and that Cubans who have fled the island and are caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally are accepted back by the Cuban government and treated justly.

A brief statement issued by the U.S. State Department after yesterday’s meeting said that it, “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to promote safe, orderly, and legal migration.” (See the full text below)

Craig Kelly, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, led the U.S. delegation. The Cuban delegation was represented by Dagoberto Rodriguez, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official and the former head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Rodriguez, quoted by Reuters, described the meeting as “a fruitful working session that validates the usefulness of the mechanism of these talks.”

The meeting spurred a string of reactions that ranged from optimism to skepticism.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, told the Miami Herald, ”This is a welcome development because the two governments are talking, because migration affects both of our interests, and because this can be a starting point for discussions on drugs, the environment, and ultimately, diplomacy and politics.”

Others, however, expressed disappointment. Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington was quoted by The Christian Science Monitor as saying talks between the two countries need to focus on a broad range of issues, not just immigration. “That’s it — he said — it’s immigration, and that’s disappointing, because there is a whole list of issues the two countries should be discussing. I don’t see this leading anywhere else.”

Some see a strategic move by the U.S. to head off a new wave of illegal migration from Cuba. Experts say every 15 years or so the U.S. sees a massive wave of Cuban undocumented immigrants. The last wave was in 1996, and with the island’s troubled economy a new wave may be due. Uva de Aragon, Associate Director of the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University, told Fi2W, “It is in the interest of the U.S. to avoid any kind of massive disorderly migration as happened in the past. This meeting has to do with the U.S. protecting their interests. They don’t want 40,000 Cubans coming, especially at this moment with high-rate unemployment and economic depression.”

“Another question is how important these talks are for Cuba,” Aragon said. “There are two forces within the Cuban government, those who want to negotiate, and the hard-line anti-Americans who aren’t willing to see any real changes.”

“For this piddly step, the Cubans aren’t going to change their system,” Smith told The Christian Science Monitor.

The meeting was sharply criticized by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R- Florida). The congresswoman, a long-time critic of Cuba’s communist government, said in a statement, ”It is unfortunate that, once again, the Cuban regime is being rewarded with overtures from the U.S. government despite its ongoing atrocities against the Cuban people and policies that undermine U.S. security interests and priorities.”

Florida Republican U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, quoted in the Miami Herald, called on the administration to ”push for firm commitments” from the Cuban government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has said the U.S. will not lift the embargo or ease commercial restrictions until Cuba shows improvements in human and democratic rights.

At the end of the day yesterday, it wasn’t clear what the talks had achieved, but Cuban representatives offered to hold the next meeting in Havana in December.

Here is the full text of the statement released by the U.S. Department of State:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

Office of the Spokesman

For Immediate Release July 14, 2009

2009/728

STATEMENT BY IAN KELLY, SPOKESMAN

Cuba Migration Talks

On Tuesday, July 14, the United States and Cuba met to discuss implementation of the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords. This was the first such meeting since 2003. In the course of the meeting, the U.S. team, led by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to promote safe, orderly, and legal migration. Engaging in these talks underscores our interest in pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba to advance U.S. interests on issues of mutual concern.

The U.S. delegation highlighted areas of successful cooperation in migration, while also identifying issues that have been obstacles to the full implementation of the Accords. The agenda for the talks reflected long-standing U.S. priorities on Cuba migration issues, including: ensuring that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana is able to operate fully and effectively; gaining access to a deep water port for the safe repatriation of migrants; ensuring that the American consular staff at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana are able to monitor the welfare of repatriated migrants; and gaining Cuban government acceptance for the repatriation of all Cuban nationals who are excludable on criminal grounds. The United States views these talks as a venue to achieve practical, positive results that contribute to the full implementation of the Accords and to the safety of our citizens.

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