WASHINGTON – Further signaling its interest in engaging Cuba, the Obama administration is asking the Castro government to resume migration talks that President George W. Bush suspended in 2004.
The move comes a month after President Barack Obama lifted travel and gift restrictions for those with relatives on the island and eased restrictions on U.S. telecommunications firms to do business in Cuba. And it comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Honduras for a gathering of the Organization of American States, where the reintegration of Cuba into the hemispheric body promises to be a hot topic.
The State Department on Friday delivered a diplomatic note to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., asking to resume the biannual migration talks, which are alternately held in the U.S. and Cuba.
“We intend to use the renewal of talks to reaffirm both sides’ commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration,” said Sara Mangiaracina, a State Department spokeswoman, who added the meetings would be used to “review recent trends in illegal Cuban migrations to the U.S. and to improve operational relations with Cuba on migration issues.”
Cuba watchers who favor increased relations with Cuba hailed the decision as a step toward thawing U.S.-Cuba relations. Several groups had urged Obama last month to resume the migration talks, saying they demonstrate Washington is interested in a new relationship with the island nation.
“It is consistent with the president’s values, and a signal not just to Cuba but also to the region, that we’re abandoning our policy of isolation and moving in the direction of honest talk and mutually beneficial cooperation,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates for more normalized relations with Cuba.
But the overture met with swift opposition from Florida’s Cuban-American Republican members of Congress who say Havana should first show that it’s willing to make a move. They note that the U.S. suspended talks five years ago because the Castro government refused to comply with a U.S.-Cuba migration accord.
The talks were begun after a migration accord was signed by the two nations in September 1994 in an effort to prevent mass migrations to Florida, like the balsero crisis earlier that year that resulted in tens of thousands leaving the island.
Under the agreement, U.S. officials agreed to grant legal entry to at least 20,000 Cubans a year. But Republicans argued the Castro government violates the accords by refusing visits to repatriated Cubans and denying exit permits to Cubans with U.S. visas.
“The administration should insist on the regime’s full compliance with the migration accords before reopening formal talks,” Sen. Mel Martinez said. “Otherwise, this will be little more than a concession to the regime and a departure from the president’s commitment to make freedom the ‘lodestone’ of our policy towards Cuba.”
And in a joint statement, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart called the move a “unilateral concession” to the Cuban government.
The United States and Cuba were meeting regularly until December 2003, when Washington canceled a scheduled meeting because it said Cuba was unwilling to cooperate.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading pro-embargo lobbyist, noted that both Clinton – who signed the accord – and later Bush scrapped the talks, expressing frustration with the Cuban government. At one point in 2000, there were no talks for more than a year, with the Cuban side indefinitely – and without explanation – canceling one meeting.
“President Clinton and President Bush gave it a shot, let’s just hope (the administration) understands the reason they’ve been suspended and holds the Cuban government to their end of the agreement,” Claver-Carone said.