WASHINGTON -- Migration issues headlined talks on Wednesday between the U.S. and Cuba, yet long-standing disputes threaten efforts to thaw relations between the Cold War enemies.
In the one-day talks, Cuba repeated its opposition to the United States' so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy in which Cuban refugees reaching American soil are allowed to stay while those stopped at sea are sent home. Cuba says the policy urges its citizens to try to flee the island.
"Alien smuggling could not be eradicated nor a legal, safe and orderly migration between the two countries could be achieved as long as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourage illegal migration and irregular entries of Cuban citizens into the United States, remain in force," the delegation said in a statement. The act lets islanders who reach the United States stay and fast-tracks them for residency.
American officials reiterated their call for the immediate release of a US Agency for International Development worker, Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since Dec. 3, 2009. Gross was working on a USAID democracy-building program when he was arrested. Washington has said repeatedly that no major improvement in relations can occur until he is released.
The migration talks were announced last month after Havana and Washington wrapped up separate negotiations aimed at restarting direct mail service, which has been suspended since 1963. Discussions about migration and mail – along with the relaxation of travel and remittance rules for Cuban Americans – appeared to signal a thaw in chilly relations.
But two recent events – Cuba's backing of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's bid for asylum and the interception of weapons hidden on a ship that had sailed out of Cuba bound for North Korea – now pose new setbacks to warming relations.
Earlier this month, Cuban President Raul Castro threw his support behind other Latin American governments willing to give asylum to Snowden, who has since sought temporary asylum in Russia. Castro made no reference as to whether Cuba itself would offer him refuge or safe passage. Snowden's simplest route to Latin America might be one of five direct flights that Russian carrier Aeroflot operates to Havana each week. From there Snowden could fly to Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua, all possible destinations for him.
On Tuesday Panamanian authorities seized a 14,000-ton ship with a cargo of missiles and other arms hidden under sacks of sugar. Cuba claimed the military equipment was obsolete weaponry from the mid-20th century that it was sending to North Korea for repair. The incident underscored concerns about Cuba's relationship with North Korea, which is in a standoff with the U.S. and its allies for continuing to develop nuclear weapons.
Cuba's delegation to the migration talks said the discussion took place in a "climate of respect" and said it was willing to hold more exchanges in the future. The delegation said Cuba used the meeting to announce that the government of Cuba had ratified international protocols on migrant smuggling and human trafficking.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, said the discussion focused on the implementation of the 1994 and 1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accords. The talks are intended to monitor adherence to a 16-year-old agreement under which the U.S. issues 20,000 visas to Cubans each year. Wednesday marked the first time since January 2011 that the periodic talks have been held.
"The U.S. delegation highlighted areas of successful cooperation in migration, including advances in aviation safety and visa processing, while also identifying actions needed to ensure that the goals of the accords are fully met, especially those having to do with safeguarding the lives of intending immigrants," Harf said.
Cuba, however, remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, another sticking point in the migration talks. Havana denies any links to terrorism and contends its inclusion on the list is a political vendetta.
Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the shipment of weapons a "grave violation" of international treaties and called on the Obama administration to submit the case to the U.N. Security Council for review.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who is staunchly opposed to the Raul Castro government, urged the State Department to call for U.N. Sanctions Committee inspectors to go to Panama and investigate whether North Korea and Cuba have violated U.N. resolutions.