U.S. Diplomat's Visit to Cuba Turned Into Extended Talks

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In an unusual move, Cuban authorities this month invited a State Department official to turn a brief visit to the Communist-ruled island into a six-day stay that included meetings with officials, opposition figures and people from Cuban civil organizations, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said that Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was "taking advantage of an opportunity to have further talks on specific subjects."

"I wouldn't characterize this as any kind of a breakthrough," he said of the previously undisclosed trip.

But Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. diplomats had not been permitted to travel around the country and hold such meetings for years.

"This is definitely a departure from standard practice for a good 10 years at least," Sweig said.

The invitation to extend the visit appeared to be another sign of a warming of relations that has occurred under the Obama administration. President Obama has lifted restrictions on family visits and remittances sent to the island and permitted investments there by U.S. telecommunications companies. U.S. officials have also resumed talks on migration that the Bush administration had halted in 2003. Craig A. Kelly, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with his Cuban counterpart during the summer in the highest-level such talks in years.

But Obama has held off on bolder measures, insisting that Cuba take steps to improve its human rights record and move toward democracy.

Officials had announced that Williams was traveling to Cuba for talks Sept. 17 on reestablishing postal service between the two countries, which was cut off in 1963. The Cuban government asked her to stay on for additional discussions, a State Department official said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy involved.

Crowley said she met with Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodríguez and "civil society" representatives to discuss "political and economic issues," and she visited hurricane-ravaged areas of western Cuba.

Some of her talks involved migration and technical issues related to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the American diplomatic facility on the island, officials said.

Sweig said that she knew of no other case in recent years in which a U.S. diplomat had been invited to extend a visit and discuss issues affecting Cuba. During the migration talks that occurred every six months between the two countries from 1993 to 2003, she said, both governments sharply limited the movement of each other's diplomats.

"The Cuban government tightened access by U.S. diplomats to scholars and professionals and generally to Cuban institutions. They did that as the focus of U.S. policy, especially under the Bush administration, moved toward regime change and dissident support," she said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said in a speech at the United Nations last week that his country is ready to sit down with Obama for "a respectful, arm's length dialogue" and that it wants to normalize relations.

The United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for 47 years.

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