HAVANA TIMES, Jan 14 (IPS) — The Cuban capital was the venue for a new round of immigration talks between delegations from this Caribbean island nation and the United States, although no major progress towards a broader dialogue is expected, in contrast to the hopes raised when President Barack Obama took office.
“There are no signals. Some time ago, Cuba proposed a series of issues to expand the agenda for talks, but Washington never responded,” Cuban historian Esteban Morales, who considers it necessary for the two countries to discuss other issues besides immigration, told IPS.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban émigré to the United States who is a lecturer at the University of Denver in the United States, said the fact that Cuban-born Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now chairs the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee will have a “very negative impact” on any possible moves in the U.S. Congress to improve relations with Cuba.
“Ros-Lehtinen has backed all initiatives to strengthen the (five-decade U.S.) embargo, and has participated in blocking any law designed to ease it,” Lopez-Levy said in an email interview with IPS.
But in his view, the biggest problem in bilateral relations is that Washington has not reacted intelligently to economic reforms adopted by the Cuban government or its release of political prisoners, even though Obama had specifically called for “a sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba.”
The U.S. broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961. But in 1994 and 1995, they signed migration accords subject to a six-monthly review in meetings held alternately in the two countries.
However, the meetings were interrupted in 2003 and were not resumed until Obama became president.
In separate statements, Havana and Washington expressed an interest in continuing the exchanges, after Wednesday’s talks — the fourth round since the resumption of talks in 2009 — took place “in a climate of respect,” according to the Cuban delegation.
Agent Alan Gross was on the US agenda
The U.S. delegation, led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, once again called for the “immediate release” of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, who has been in a Cuban jail since December 2009 without charges.
Cuban authorities say Gross is a spy who was distributing “sophisticated” communications systems to dissidents on the island. But Washington only admits that he travelled to Cuba as a contractor, to deliver cell-phones and computers to the Jewish community.
In what analysts saw as a gesture of goodwill, Jacobson was allowed to meet Thursday with Gross. The meeting was reported by State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley, who said Gross has been visited “regularly.”
“We remain very concerned about Mr. Gross’s health, and it does bring a sense of urgency to why we believe very strongly he should be released as soon as possible,” Crowley said.
The spokesman told reporters that Jacobson also met with representatives of the Catholic Church, Jewish groups and members of civil society.
Cuba sees provocation
But in a second statement, the Cuban Foreign Ministry described a lengthy meeting with dissidents by Jacobson and other members of her delegation as a “provocation.”
While the immigration talks were taking place in Havana, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela reiterated during a visit to Chile that Washington had made it clear to Cuba that it would be difficult to move forward on issues of common interest as long as Gross is in prison.
According to a statement issued by the Cuban government of Raul Castro, Wednesday’s meeting revealed that the number of dangerous sea crossings by Cubans attempting to make it to the United States had significantly declined as a result of the efforts undertaken by the two countries to reduce the trafficking of persons and “illegal emigration.”
The communiqué also cited statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, the head of the Cuban delegation, who stressed that Cuban authorities had offered “valuable information, as well as testimony and evidence to be used in legal cases against traffickers in U.S. courts.”
He also repeated his warning that “smuggling of migrants cannot be eliminated, and legal, safe and orderly immigration cannot be achieved between the two countries, as long as the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act and the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy are in effect, because they stimulate illegal immigration of Cubans to the United States.”
Under that policy, the United States repatriates would-be Cuban immigrants intercepted at sea, but those who manage to reach dry land can obtain residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act, no matter how they entered the country.
Academic studies indicate that trafficking of persons began to compound the immigration problem in 1998, and that between that year and 2008, around 8,000 undocumented Cuban immigrants reached the coast of Florida.
The Cuban government says the racket is organized and financed by Miami-based Cuban-American groups.
Esteban Morales, who has written extensively on Cuba’s relations with the United States, says that while there is currently less tension between the two governments, it cannot be said that progress is being towards an improvement in relations.
“Obama has domestic problems to resolve, and the Cuba issue is not among his priorities,” he said.
Lopez- Levy believes that “if Obama wants to leave a positive legacy and act in accordance with U.S. national interests and even win political credit for achieving what the hostility of his predecessor George W. Bush (2001-2009) failed to accomplish, he has the necessary authority to take significant and very low-cost actions” towards Cuba.
For example, measures to further facilitate travel to Cuba and agricultural trade, and the removal of Cuba from its list of terrorist nations, “would greatly improve its relations with Cuba and the perception of the Obama administration in Latin America.”