By BEN FOX
WASHINGTON (AP) — Cuba and the United States took a tentative step toward thawing relations and resuming joint efforts to address irregular migration, a senior Cuban official said Friday following the highest-level talks between the two countries in four years.
There were no major breakthroughs, but the mere fact that the U.S. was holding substantive talks was a sign relations might be looking better under President Joe Biden after going into deep freeze under his predecessor, Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said.
“They seem committed. They ratified that they are committed to the agreements in place,” Fernandez de Cossio said. “So we have no reason to mistrust what they’re saying, but time will tell.”
The talks did not focus on broader U.S.-Cuba relations but more narrowly on restoring adherence to previous agreements that were intended to curtail the often-dangerous irregular migration from the island to the United States.
“These talks helped both of us to understand the nature and the magnitude of the problem we’re facing,” the deputy foreign minister said in an interview with The Associated Press at the Cuban ambassador’s residence outside Washington.
U.S. officials want Cuba to resume taking back flights of deported migrants, which it stopped doing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuban authorities, meanwhile, want to see the U.S. follow through on its plan to restore consular services in Havana, so people can once again get visas to legally come to the United States, as well as change other policies that it believes encourage irregular migration from the island.
“They asked us to renew the flights because it was an important element of deterrence,” he said. “We said we agree that is an important element of deterrence. We explained that we needed to do in an integral manner, and they understood this.”
It was a more detailed rundown of the talks than what was provided by the U.S. a day earlier. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the meeting “underscores our commitment to pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba where appropriate to advance U.S. interests.”
The talks take place against the backdrop of relations that sharply deteriorated under President Donald Trump and amid a sharp increase in the number of Cubans seeking to enter the U.S. along the Southwest border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped Cubans more than 79,800 times from October through March — more than double all of 2021 and five times more than all of 2020. Overall, the Border Patrol stopped migrants of all nationalities more than 209,000 times in March, the highest monthly mark in 22 years.
Cubans who cross the U.S. border illegally face little risk of being deported or expelled under a public health law that has been used to deny asylum to thousands of migrants of other nationalities on the grounds of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Asked why so many Cubans are fleeing their country, Fernandez de Cossio blamed tough economic conditions in his country and widespread knowledge among Cubans that they will be granted asylum and legal residency in the U.S.
“Life is difficult for Cubans. It’s a developing country like any other country in the region,” he said. “They leave for economic reasons, like most migrants around the world.”
Cubans are often granted asylum after they assert what’s known under U.S. law as “credible fear” of persecution, typically for political or religious reasons. The deputy foreign minister is, not surprisingly, skeptical of such claims.
“When they reach the border, they claim that they have a credible fear if they if they are returned,” he said. “But then they’re accepted, and once they get residence the first thing they do is get a passport and move back to Cuba.”
Cuba wants the U.S. to stop routinely granting asylum, end the economic embargo and take other measures that it says encourage migration and to restore consular activities so people can legally travel back and forth from the island with visitor visas.
Operations at the U.S. embassy in Havana were severely curtailed beginning in 2017 after the emergence of unexplained health problems among some employees.
Cases of what became known as “Havana Syndrome” became a major issue during the Trump administration, which rolled back the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba that had been initiated by former President Barack Obama.
Fernandez de Cossio said the Trump administration curtailed visas as part of its “maximum pressure” against Cuba, contributing to the irregular migration occurring now and he welcomed the Biden administration’s commitment to restore visa operations.
“It needs to be done so that people in Cuba can find that there’s a legal normal way to migrate to the United States, which has been lacking since 2017,” he said.
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