U.S.-Cuba postal talks seen as test for future ties

HAVANA Wed Sep 16, 2009 4:29pm EDT

A woman holds envelopes with the Cuban Five postal stamps after the stamps' official launch in Havana September 12, 2007. REUTERS/Claudia Daut (CUBA)

A woman holds envelopes with the Cuban Five postal stamps after the stamps' official launch in Havana September 12, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Claudia Daut (CUBA)

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HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba will discuss on Thursday the possible resumption of long-suspended direct postal service in another small step toward seeking better relations after 50 years of hostilities.

Experts say that, like most things between the longtime ideological foes, there are potential obstacles and the outcome is uncertain. But the talks in Havana may serve as a barometer for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, said Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

"This is a test of whether the U.S. and Cuba can deal with each other at all," he told Reuters. "If the two sides can't deliver the mail, then all bets are off in terms of improving other aspects of the relationship."

The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Bisa Williams, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, and the most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba from President Barack Obama's administration.

The delegation will include representatives of the U.S. Postal Service.

"These are really exploratory talks and they are very technical in nature ... We see it as a potential avenue for improving the communication between our two countries," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington.

"We hope the talks will lead to consistent use of direct mail transportation between the U.S. and Cuba," he said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was asked about the meeting in a Wednesday news conference, but did not respond.

The United States invited Cuba in May to discuss postal services as part of efforts by Obama to improve relations that became hostile soon after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in a 1959 revolution. Castro, now 83, has handed over the presidency to his younger brother Raul Castro, 78.

Obama has taken steps to ease the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist-run island and to reopen dialogue that was shut down under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Rodriguez on Wednesday described Obama as "well-intentioned" but chided him for not doing more to end the long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against the island despite his public promise to seek improved ties.

Obama says the embargo will stay in place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves its human rights -- issues Havana says are strictly internal matters.

LONG WAIT FOR MAIL

Washington cut off direct mail service to Cuba in August 1963 as part of its Cold War campaign to undermine Castro's communist government.

Cubans say they remember fondly when, in the years immediately after the revolution, their relatives in the United States would put small luxuries like chewing gum and new razor blades in the mail, and they would arrive shortly afterward.

At present, mail between the United States and Cuba must go through third countries and can take as long as two months.

That makes it difficult for families separated by just 90 miles of ocean to maintain communication or send packages in a timely manner.

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits have taken to sending items with travelers, often for a hefty fee. E-mail and electronic messaging are rare in Cuba because few have access to the Internet, which is controlled by the Cuban authorities.

While Cuba has agreed to the talks, in the past it has had strong reservations about restarting direct mail service.

Analysts say the government has been worried that opponents in the United States would take advantage of direct mail to send in arms, ammunition or technology that could be used against it, or subversive literature to incite the people.

It also fears whatever money it might earn in the United States for mail service could be diverted to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in legal judgments awarded in U.S. lawsuits filed against Cuba, mostly by the exile community.

Cuba also has insisted in the past that direct mail service must be accompanied by the resumption of regularly scheduled commercial flights from the United States. Currently, only charter flights are permitted.

Given the complexities, the talks "seem very unlikely to bear fruit," said Washington attorney Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba issues. "I may be wrong, but Cuba has never shown any interest in this at all."

At best, he said the two sides might agree to some sort of limited express courier service such as that provided by FedEx or UPS, which cannot operate in Cuba because of the embargo. Foreign competitors do operate on the island.

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel and Nelson Acosta in Havana and Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)

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