Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuba, US discuss resuming direct mail; migration talks to be held next month

    Posted on Tuesday, 06.18.13

    Cuba, US discuss resuming direct mail; migration talks to be held next

    There have been signs on two fronts this week that the Obama
    administration is willing to work toward warmer relations with Cuba that
    have been all but frozen since Havana jailed a U.S. government
    subcontractor in 2009.

    Two days of talks between U.S. and Cuban officials on resuming direct
    mail to Cuba — a service that has been cut off for five decades — began
    Tuesday in Washington, and, perhaps more significantly, sources said
    that U.S. and Cuban officials plan to resume migration talks in July.

    Migration between the long-hostile countries has come under closer
    scrutiny since Havana eased its restrictions on travel abroad on Jan.
    14, raising the prospects that many more Cubans will leave the island
    and head to the United States, legally or illegally. Cubans are no
    longer required to obtain an exit visa or a mandatory invitation letter
    from a foreign host to leave the island.

    But because Cubans still need an entry visa to visit the United States,
    some analysts say migratory patterns could change as Cubans travel to
    countries that don’t require visas and then use them as a hopping-off
    point to enter the United States.

    The migration talks will start July 17 in Washington between State
    Department and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials, knowledgeable sources
    told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

    Although the resumption of the migration and mail talks are not
    especially significant by themselves, they signal an effort by the Obama
    administration to improve its relations with Havana and provide a
    setting for quiet discussions on other issues.

    The talks on resumption of direct mail service, which was suspended in
    1963 — the same year the Kennedy administration tightened the embargo
    and made most travel to Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens — were held at
    the U.S. Postal Service headquarters and included representatives of the
    U.S. State Department, USPS and the Cuban government.

    “We believe it [direct mail service] is consistent with our interest in
    promoting civil society and the free flow of information to, from and
    within Cuba,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for State’s Bureau of
    Western Hemisphere Affairs.

    Currently, there is U.S. mail service to Cuba but it travels through
    third countries and is considered slow and not very reliable. A number
    of types of service, such as express mail international, aren’t
    available for Cuba.

    Sources said letter service, express mail and parcel service are all
    expected to be discussed during the talks.

    Through the years, depending on the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, there
    have been discussions on resumption of direct mail to Cuba but none have
    been successful.

    Migration talks between the two countries used to be a twice-a year
    event but President George W. Bush’s administration suspended them in
    2003, complaining that Havana did not want to take up many of the issues
    of interest to Washington.

    Those issues have included a new sign-up period for the lottery used by
    the U.S. government to fulfill its promise of granting 20,000 visas to
    Cubans per year. The last such sign-up embarrassed Havana when hundreds
    of thousands sent in applications.

    The Obama administration agreed to resume the migration talks in 2009.
    One U.S. diplomatic dispatch published by WikiLeaks at the time noted
    that Havana would use the talks to “hammer” at the U.S. wet-foot,
    dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Havana
    criticizes the policy as an enticement to illegal departures.

    Four rounds were held but the talks were suspended again in 2011 after
    Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor,
    was sentenced to 15 years in prison for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated
    communications equipment paid for by a USAID pro-democracy program.

    The most recent talks on direct mail were held in September 2009 — the
    year the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions for
    Cuban-Americans and limits on their money transfers to the island. Bisa
    Williams, then U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western
    Hemisphere Affairs, met with Cuban officials in Havana to discuss
    technical aspects of resuming direct mail service.

    At the time, the relationship between Havana and Washington seemed to be

    But the arrest of Gross in December 2009 and his subsequent conviction
    froze any further opening toward Cuba, although the Obama administration
    further tweaked travel restrictions in 2011 by reviving and expanding
    people-to-people cultural trips to Cuba for Americans.

    Although the U.S. government has pressed for the release of Gross,
    Havana has seemed more interested in a swap for the release of five
    Cubans convicted in 2000 of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami and
    military installations. Federal prosecutors contended the men’s spying
    led to the shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four
    members of the exile group in 1996. The Cuban government, meanwhile,
    considers USAID pro-democracy programs to be subversive.

    Cuban observers say the stalemate over Gross has been an obstacle to any
    further opening with Cuba despite recent Havana’s recent travel and
    economic reforms.

    Although the Cuban Democracy Act, which Congress approved in 1992, is
    generally thought of as tightening the embargo, it does contain
    provisions in support of the Cuban people and directs the U.S. Postal
    Service to “take such actions as are necessary to provide direct mail
    service to and from Cuba.’’

    “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to move things forward,’’ said
    spokeswoman Jen Psaki at a U.S. State Department briefing the day before
    the direct mail talks began.

    But Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the mail talks
    aren’t in the interest of the United States. She also predicted the
    migration talks would go nowhere.

    “There is no reason to have this talk because the ones not complying
    with the mail accords from years ago are the Castro thugs,’’ she said in
    a statement. “The regime is once again manipulating the U.S.
    administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and
    make further concessions. Meanwhile, a U.S. citizen languishes unjustly
    in a Cuban prison and brave freedom Cuban activists are risking their
    lives while on hunger strikes to protest the island tyranny.”

    Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S. Cuba Democracy
    Political Action Committee, concurred. “We look forward to the day the
    Obama administration stops rewarding the Castro regime for taking an
    American hostage and for its dramatic increase in repression.”

    However, Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National
    Foundation, said his exile organization favors the mail talks. “It’s
    been our position for quite some time that we favor anything that
    improves the relationship with the people of Cuba,’’ he said.

    “It’s interesting that the Cuban government is now willing to sit down
    for these talks,’’ said Hernández.

    Advocates of improving relations with Havana have been urging the White
    House to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that support
    international terrorism as an opening gambit for Gross’ release.

    Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and
    now director of the Cuba project at the Center for International Policy,
    said he had hoped that the Obama administration would have taken steps
    beyond the mail and migration talks to repair the tattered relationship
    with Havana. But he added, “It’s something.’’

    The 2009 measures to open travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans
    were far more significant, Smith said.

    Source: “Cuba, US discuss resuming direct mail; migration talks to be
    held next month – Cuba –” –