SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba have agreed to resume direct talks on migration, last held in 2003, and open discussions on reestablishing direct mail service between the two countries, U.S. officials said on Sunday.
In the latest sign of progress in President Barack Obama’s effort to improve relations with the former Cold War enemy, Cuba presented a note to officials on Saturday agreeing to a U.S. request made last week to resume the migration talks, which President George W. Bush suspended.
The communist nation also agreed to a U.S. request proposing talks about direct mail service, which has been suspended for decades.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, opening a three-day visit to Latin America, said in El Salvador the talks were part of “our effort to forge a new way forward on Cuba.”
“President Obama and I are committed to a new approach,” she told reporters. “We believe we have made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years.”
U.S. officials said the Cubans also indicated an interest in holding talks on counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and hurricane disaster responses -- areas where the two countries have had sporadic cooperation in the decades since the U.S. broke off diplomatic ties and imposed an embargo.
Clinton will visit Honduras on Tuesday to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States, where a majority of Latin American members are expected to support Cuba’s re-entry to the hemispheric group.
The OAS suspended Cuba in 1962 after Fidel Castro’s revolution steered the island toward communism and a close alliance with the Soviet Union.
Clinton reaffirmed the United States would not support Cuba’s re-entry to the OAS until it could embrace the democratic principles outlined in the group’s charter. The United States and OAS members are negotiating possible resolutions to be considered at the meeting.
“We believe that membership in the OAS comes with responsibilities,” Clinton said. Cuba says it is not interested in joining the OAS.
In a move to improve ties with Cuba, Obama lifted restrictions two months ago on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island.
But Obama also has emphasized the need for Cuba to engage in democratic reforms before additional steps can be taken to ease or end the decades-old American embargo on Cuba.
“These talks are in the interest of the United States and also in the interest of the Cuban people,” Clinton said. “At the same time we will continue to press the Cuban government to protect basic rights, release political prisoners and move toward democratic reform.”
No date or place have yet been set for the talks.
The United States hopes the migration talks could decrease the chances of a mass exodus of Cubans like the flood of refugees who left in 1980 and again in 1994.
“We believe that cooperation on migration issues can advance our national security,” Clinton said.
A 1995 migration accord sought to put an end to mass sea-borne migration. It established the repatriation to Cuba by U.S. authorities of Cuban migrants intercepted at sea, and Havana also pledged to halt illegal migration bids.
Under that accord, the United States agreed to foster legal migration by granting at least 20,000 U.S. visas to Cubans each year. The Bush administration suspended talks in January 2004, saying Cuba had stymied them by refusing to discuss key issues such as giving exit permits to all Cubans who get U.S. visas.
Washington’s announcement it had offered a resumption of the migration talks with Havana brought condemnation from Florida Republican Congress members Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, who in a joint statement called it “another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship”.
They said Havana continued to flout the 1995 pact by withholding exit permits.
Other representatives of the Cuban American community, such as the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), now advocate more engagement with Cuba after years of hardline anti-Castro militancy.
The group said discussion of topics of mutual interest like migration was essential to improving the relationship.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami, editing by Anthony Boadle and Todd Eastham