U.S., Cuba discuss migration in sign of better ties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Cuban officials on Tuesday held their first talks since 2003 on Cuban migration to the United States, a step the U.S. State Department said showed its desire to work constructively with the Communist island.

Both sides raised long-standing disagreements in the talks held in New York, but said they had laid the groundwork for future discussions.

“Engaging in these talks underscores our interest in pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba to advance U.S. interests on issues of mutual concern,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement.

Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, who headed the Cuban delegation, described the meeting as “a fruitful working session that validates the usefulness of the mechanism of these talks.”

“Progress was made in the identification of areas in which both countries should work and cooperate to guarantee the implementation of these accords,” he said in a statement.

Last held in 2003 and suspended by Washington in 2004, the talks cover mid-1990s migration accords that aimed to prevent an exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States such as the 1980 Mariel boatlift and another wave of boat people in 1994.

The agreement established the repatriation by U.S. authorities of Cuban migrants intercepted at sea, while Havana also pledged to clamp down on illegal migration.

The United States on Tuesday reiterated its desire to get access to a deepwater Cuban port to return migrants safely, as set out in the accords, and to ensure that U.S. diplomats can track the welfare of those sent back, the department said.

Washington also expressed its desire that Cuba accept repatriation of Cuban migrants who committed crimes in the United and are therefore ineligible to become citizens.

Cuba said it repeated its long-held objection to U.S. immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to Cubans who make it to U.S. shores. The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy “encourages illegal departures and human smuggling” out of the island, a Cuban statement said.

Cuba said it offered a new immigration agreement for consideration, but gave no details.

The talks appeared to be a further token of U.S. President Barack Obama’s desire to reach out to Cuba as he has to other nations such as Iran and Syria with which the United States has long had strained relations.

“The United States views these talks as a venue to achieve practical, positive results that contribute to the full implementation of the accords and to the safety of our citizens,” the State Department spokesman said.

The U.S. statement did not say whether the talks had achieved any agreements. Cuba said it had proposed that the next round of talks, which are supposed to happen twice a year, be held in Havana in December.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Anthony Boadle