US, Cuba agree to resume migration talks

The United States and Cuba have agreed to resume direct talks on migration, last held in 2003, and open discussions on establishing direct mail service between the two countries, a US official said today.

Cuba presented a diplomatic note to US officials on Saturday agreeing to a US request made last week to resume the migration talks, which President George W Bush suspended.

It was a clear sign of movement in President Barack Obama's effort to establish a more cooperative relationship with Cuba, a former Cold War enemy.

The communist nation also presented a note agreeing to a US request proposing talks about direct mail service, which has been suspended for decades.

"The two notes are a very positive step forward," the US official said. "Our goal has always been safe, orderly migration out of Cuba... It's in our interest to resume these talks."

The official 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 US broke off diplomatic ties and imposed an embargo.

The word came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a three-day trip to Latin America that will include 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 told Congress recently 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.

In a move to improve ties with Cuba, President 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.

"This is a clear signal that we're serious in following up the president's direction and we're intent on starting up a new relationship," the official said. "The idea is to identify areas of cooperation that would be mutually beneficial."

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.

A 1995 migration accord sought to put an end to mass seat-borne migration. It established the repatriation to Cuba by US 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 the 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 US visas.

When Washington announced earlier this month it had offered a resumption of the migration talks with Havana, Florida Republican Congress members Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart issued a joint statement condemning the move as "another unilateral concession by the Obama Administration to the dictatorship".

They said Havana continued to flout the 1995 pact by withholding exit permits.

But other representatives of the Cuban American community, such as the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which after years of hardline anti-Castro militancy now advocates more contact and engagement with Cuba, said discussion of topics of mutual interest like migration was essential to try to improve the bilateral relationship.

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