By Silvia Ayuso
HAVANA TIMES — The United States and Cuba resumed migration talks in Washington today despite Panama’s seizure of a ship bound for North Korea with weapons from the island having put a veil of distrust on Havana.
The hidden cargo discovery revived the voices of those who see these technical meetings between the US and Cuba as undesirable rapprochement with the government of Raul Castro.
The meeting, the first after more than two years of interruption of what had once been regular meetings, was chaired by the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Alex Lee, and the director of the USA desk of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal.
As the meeting concluded, the Cuban delegation was quick to point out in a statement the “friendly climate” in which the encounter occurred.
The State Department meanwhile stressed that at the meeting, focused on immigration issues, “it also reiterated its call for the immediate release of Alan Gross”, whose imprisonment in Havana has become in recent years the main obstacle to even a slight rapprochement between Cuba and the US.
According to the Cuban press, the meeting, “reviewed the progress of the migration agreements in force between the two countries,” while not mentioning the Gross case.
The meeting “assessed the main results of the actions taken by each of the parties and together to tackle illegal migration and trafficking of migrants.” It took place a month after bilateral talks resumed to restore direct mail service interrupted for more than half a century.
The seizure earlier this week in Panama of a ship bound for North Korea carrying “obsolete defensive weapons” from Cuba, as acknowledged Havana on Tuesday, had triggered calls from some lawmakers to cancel the meeting. The Obama administration decided to go on with the meeting which it called technical, seen as at least a gesture toward the island.
The State Department refused to suspend the appointment, arguing, according to spokeswoman Marie Harf, that it is an “ongoing process” important to Washington because “safe immigration is in the interest of the United States.”
Harf had already ruled out that the ship incident would find a space in the “very structured” talks today, but said Washington has requested a meeting “very soon” with Havana to “discuss with them about this boat” but did not explain what specific clarifications it wants from Cuba.
The Obama administration has emphasized at all times that such meetings “do not represent a significant change in US policy toward Cuba”.
However, the fact that Washington and Havana have some sort of high-level official contact is usually followed with the utmost attention, for the major implications that a gesture of rapprochement could have between the two governments at odds for more than half a century.
The latest round of migration talks, the fourth, took place in January 2011 in Havana. After six years of hiatus, Cuba and the United States had resumed these contacts after the arrival of Obama to the White House in 2009.
However the meeting in 2011 was already tarnished by the case of Alan Gross, who is serving 15 years in prison for crimes against the “independence” and “territorial integrity” of Cuba, which Washington denies.
Up to the interruption of the meetings under the George W. Bush presidency, Cuba had been looking for a new immigration agreement with the United States, to replace the one signed in 1994 following the “rafters crisis,” when thousands of Cubans landed on US shores on precarious boats.
Seeking to bring an end to the migratory crisis, the United States agreed to grant 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans to facilitate an orderly exit from the island, while Cuba agreed to accept, without reprisals, those Cubans detained at sea by the US authorities.
In addition, earlier this year, the Cuban government entered into force a historic immigration reform that relaxes foreign travel for Cubans.
With approximately over 1.5 million people of Cuban origin, the United States is the country where the majority of Cuban exiles have settled. The US is also the leading destination for Cubans trying to leave the country.
The Cuban delegation said that during the meeting on Wednesday “it provided useful information on the updating of the Cuban immigration procedures and its implementation process.”
It also said that Cuba “reiterated its willingness to keep up these exchanges in the future.”