UPDATE 1-U.S. and Cuba meet on resuming direct mail service

Thu Sep 17, 2009 6:37pm EDT

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* Another step in Obama efforts to improve relations (Updates with Cuba statement, talks completed)

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA, Sept 17 (Reuters) - U.S. and Cuban officials met on Thursday to discuss the possibility of resuming long-suspended direct mail service in a first round of talks that Cuba described as "broad and useful."

The talks, the result of a proposal by the United States in May, are viewed as another step in President Barack Obama's efforts to mend long-broken U.S.-Cuba relations.

In a statement, Cuba said the two sides discussed issues including "transportation of mail, postal security and methods of payment for the service."

It said it presented proposals to the United States and also made clear that restrictions imposed by the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island had to be eliminated.

"We are satisfied with the development of this first meeting, which allowed us to examine issues that make it difficult to normalize the exchange of mail," the Cuban Foreign Ministry's Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, who headed the Cuban delegation, said in the statement.

She said the negotiators agreed on the need to hold more talks "in the coming months." The Cuban delegation included officials from the telecommunications ministry and postal service.

A U.S. spokesman was not immediately available for comment, but earlier said the talks would be "exploratory" and deal with "technical issues" aimed at laying the groundwork for future discussions.

The U.S. delegation included officials from the U.S. Postal Service and was led by Bisa Williams, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. She is the most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba from the Obama administration.

Washington, which had imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in February 1962, cut off direct mail service in August 1963 as part of its campaign to subvert Fidel Castro's communist government, which came to power in a 1959 revolution.

Castro, 83, resigned last year on health grounds and now brother Raul Castro, 78, leads the country.

Mail between the United States and Cuba must go through third countries and can take as long as two months to deliver.

Obama, saying he wants to improve ties, has lifted restrictions on travel and cash transfers to Cuba by Cuban Americans, and taken steps to reopen dialogue with the Cuban government that predecessor George W. Bush shut down.

But he has said the embargo will remain until Cuba shows progress on human rights and releases political prisoners, issues that Havana says are internal matters.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez complained in a news conference on Wednesday that despite Obama's "good intentions," there had been "no change in the application of the embargo," which Cuba blames for many of its economic problems.

The United States said it had proposed postal service discussions with Cuba several times over the years before the May invitation was accepted.

Analysts say Cuba views the idea of direct mail from the United States with suspicion because of concerns its opponents there could send arms or ammunition to be used against the government or subversive literature to incite its people.

Cuba also wants protection from lawsuits that have been filed against it in the United States, mostly by Cuban exiles, and has insisted in the past that direct mail service must be accompanied by resumption of scheduled commercial flights from the United States.

Currently, only charter flights operate.

Logistically, restoration of mail service could pose problems for Cuba, where Communist Party newspaper Granma reported last year that postal facilities were in a "high degree of deterioration."

Cuba expert Kevin Casas-Zamora at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington said the pursuit of talks on practical issues between the long-time ideological foes was "the right way to repair relations."

"These types of things are key for creating confidence and putting in motion positive dynamics between the two governments," he said. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle)

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