US-Cuba to talk about immigration

But renewed dialogue with the Castro government is likely to start and end with that one issue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Obama administration was to resume long-stalled immigration talks with Cuba Tuesday, but the meeting is unlikely to be the first step in a broader US-Cuba dialogue.

Tuesday's meeting, scheduled for United Nations headquarters in New York, would be the first talks on immigration between the two antagonists since 2003. But State Department officials squelched any speculation that the discussions of immigration issues portend a broader opening, and US-Cuba analysts see little prospect of a further thaw in relations across the Straits of Florida any time soon.

"That's it, it's immigration, and that's disappointing, because there is a whole list of issues the two countries should be discussing," says Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "I don't see this leading anywhere else."

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Talks suspended under Bush

The talks, to be led for the US by Craig Kelly, the principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, "will focus on how best to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the US," the State Department said in a statement. Part of a Clinton administration accord with Cuba on regulating immigration, the talks took place twice a year until the Bush administration suspended them.

News of the resumption prompted quick criticism from fierce opponents on Capitol Hill of the Cuban government led by Raúl Castro, brother of longtime ruler Fidel Castro.

"It is unfortunate that, once again, the Cuban regime is being rewarded with overtures from the US government despite its ongoing atrocities against the Cuban people and policies that undermine US security interests and priorities," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Flordia, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement. Any opening to the Cuban government should stop, she says, "until the Cuban people are able to exercise their fundamental human rights and civil liberties, and until the conditions in US law are fully met."

Representative Ros-Lehtinen says "hundreds of Cubans" have been denied permission this year to leave the island for the US, in violation of the immigration accords.

Obama looking for a sign

The migration talks follow President Obama's decision in April to ease Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans wishing to travel or send money to family in Cuba. Mr. Obama said at the time that he wanted to see action on the Cuban government's part in terms of political reforms and respect for human rights before taking any further steps – such as ending the nearly half-century-old embargo on Cuba.

But Mr. Smith, a former US diplomat who headed the US interests office in Havana from 1979-82, says he does not expect Obama's reinstatement of Clinton-era contacts to move the Cubans. "For this piddly step, the Cubans aren't going to change their system," he says.

The two governments should be multiplying contacts in areas of mutual interest – such as natural-disaster relief – Smith says, noting that he is organizing a delegation to discuss hurricane relief efforts with Cuban counterparts. Led by Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who commanded the US military's post-Katrina relief efforts, the US delegation is to visit Havana next week.

That is, Smith, notes, they will if they manage to get from the US government the travel licenses required under the embargo.

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