By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
SAN SALVADOR, May 31 -- Cuba has agreed to restart talks with the United States on immigration and has signaled its willingness to cooperate on issues including terrorism, drug trafficking and even mail service, a sign that the island's communist government is warming to President Obama's call for a new relationship after decades of tension, U.S. officials said Sunday.
The breakthrough was announced as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began a three-day trip to Latin America, where she is expected to face pressure to take further steps to ease the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba.
Clinton said Sunday night that she was "very pleased" with the developments and hoped they would be well received by other Latin American countries. "We've made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years," she said, "and we need to work together to continue that kind of progress, keeping in mind the legitimate aspirations and the human rights of the people of Cuba."
Obama has promised a "new beginning" with Cuba, and his overtures have included lifting restrictions on visits by Cuban Americans to the island and allowing U.S. telecommunications firms to operate there. But the administration has moved cautiously, mindful of domestic political repercussions. Obama and Clinton have said the United States will not lift its economic embargo until President Raúl Castro's government makes democratic reforms.
The announcement of the talks could take the edge off what was shaping up as a battle over Cuba at a regional meeting of foreign ministers that Clinton is scheduled to attend Tuesday in Honduras. The ministers have been considering readmitting Cuba into the Organization of American States, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere, for the first time since 1962.
The United States has resisted readmitting Cuba, arguing it would violate the OAS charter on democratic principles. But the idea has widespread support in Latin America, where the U.S. embargo is seen as an anachronism and a symbol of Washington's historical dominance in the region. The issue of Cuba's participation in the OAS has put the U.S. government on the spot, especially after Obama pledged at a regional summit in Trinidad and Tobago in April that he would seek "an equal partnership" with Latin American leaders rather than dictating to them.
Cuba offered its olive branch to Washington on Saturday, when the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, formally accepted the U.S. offer to restart talks on legal immigration that were halted in 2003 by the Bush administration, said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The talks are not expected to change significantly the number of Cubans who legally immigrate each year to the United States -- about 20,000, the official said. But they will be the highest-level contacts between the two governments, and they could lead to dialogue on other topics. The Obama administration is interested in the discussions in part because of the growing problem of Cubans trying to enter illegally, the official said.
Bolaños also expressed interest in an earlier U.S. proposal to work on resuming direct mail service between the countries, which has not existed for decades, the official said.
In addition, the Cuban government suggested talks on fighting drug trafficking and terrorism, and on working with the United States on disaster preparation, the official said. The countries currently cooperate informally to catch drug smugglers.
No date was set for the start of the talks.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere applauded the announcements. But he said Cuba needs to offer more tangible evidence of change, such as releasing political prisoners, to show it is serious.
"I think we really need to see some meat and potatoes" before the United States takes more dramatic steps, Engel said.
The delicacy of the Cuba issue was underlined by the effort to readmit the country to the OAS. Such a move would be largely symbolic, because the government in Havana has shown no interest in participating in a group it derides as a U.S. tool.
But even the possibility has alarmed Cuban American groups and some lawmakers. One of them, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), has threatened to cut off the U.S. contribution to the OAS -- about 60 percent of its budget. Last week, three former Bush administration officials who helped shape Latin America policy -- ambassadors Lino Gutierrez, Roger F. Noriega and Otto J. Reich -- appealed to Clinton not to give in.
"Now more than ever, any actions that confer legitimacy on the unelected regime in Havana would be a betrayal of our Cuban brothers and sisters," they wrote.
Clinton's trip started Sunday in El Salvador with a meeting of Pathways to Prosperity, a Bush administration initiative to encourage greater commerce with its 12 free-trade partners in the region. The group was formed last fall, after Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez started assembling a bloc opposed to free-trade pacts with the United States.
On Monday, Clinton is scheduled to attend the inauguration of El Salvador's president, the first from the party formed by guerrillas who battled a U.S.-backed government in the 1980s. The new leader, Mauricio Funes, is the latest example of the "pink tide" that has washed over Latin America. He has said he will emulate moderate leftists like those governing Brazil and Chile, rather than populists like Chávez.
This is Clinton's third trip to Latin America in four months, a sign of what U.S. officials call their reengagement in a region where U.S. influence has waned. Many Latin American politicians have complained that they were neglected by the previous administration as the United States focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.