HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba angrily criticized U.S. officials on Saturday for meeting with government opponents following high-level talks on migration issues and said it showed the United States’ real goal is to topple Cuba’s communist government, not move toward better relations.
The meeting with “dozens of their mercenaries” took place despite warnings from Cuba that it would be viewed as an act of provocation and contrary to “the spirit of the migration conversations,” the Cuban Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“With this offensive conduct toward the Cuban authorities and people, the American government confirms that instruments of subversive policy against Cuba continue, and shows the lack of real will to improve ties with our country,” the government said.
A senior State Department official confirmed that the meeting took place on Friday, but defended it as part of U.S. policy to promote human rights globally, not just in Cuba.
“President (Barack) Obama and Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton have made clear that our diplomacy not only in this region, but around the world is not only about connecting governments, but about connecting societies,” the official told reporters. “So as part of our normal work we try to meet with various sectors of society.”
The United States has long supported dissidents on the island, including about 200 who are locked in Cuban prisons.
The diplomatic tiff followed U.S.-Cuba talks on migration issues on Friday in Havana that both sides said took place in an “atmosphere of respect.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Affairs Craig Kelly led the U.S. delegation to the migration talks, the second round of discussions since Obama took office with a pledge to seek a “new beginning” after five decades of hostility between the two countries separated by 90 miles of ocean.
The talks began in the 1990s after the United States and Cuba signed an accord aimed at preventing mass exoduses such the 1980 Mariel boatlift, but were canceled in 2004 by former President George W. Bush.
In recent months Cuba has stepped up criticism of Obama for not making more changes in U.S. policy toward the island. Tension rose in December when Cuba detained U.S. contractor Alan Gross for alleged espionage activities.
The Obama administration has said Gross was in Cuba helping Jewish groups set up Internet connectivity, but acknowledged he entered the country on a tourist visa without declaring his true intentions.
The State Department official said the U.S. delegation told the Cubans several times at the talks that Gross should be released immediately because he was not a spy and for humanitarian reasons. The Cubans listened, but offered little indication of what they will do, he said.
Gross, 60, has not yet been charged with a crime, but remains in jail and could face a stiff prison sentence if he goes to trial and is convicted.
Obama has eased the 48-year-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba by lifting restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island and has initiated talks on migration and possible resumption of bilateral postal service.
But he has said further progress depends on Cuba releasing political prisoners and improving human rights, both of which Cuba says are strictly internal matters.
“We’re just going to take it step by step and see where that goes. We have certain principles that are important to us, and not just to us but we think to countries around the world, and so we will continue to talk about those principles,” the official said.
At the same time, he said the United States would look for “overlapping” areas of interest with Cuba, such as migration, to work on together.
He said the U.S. and Cuba plan to meet again on migration and are discussing more talks on postal service, but no dates have been set for either.
Editing by Vicki Allen