Date Set to Open Cuba-U.S. Immigration Talks in Havana

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Cuba wants to negotiate an agreement with the U.S. to slow the trafficking of its citizens fleeing the island and hopes to tackle the issue during immigration talks rescheduled for February, the foreign minister said Thursday.

Bruno Rodriguez said negotiators will meet Feb. 19 in Havana and Cuba wants Washington's help in combating people smuggling, often carried out by gangs with souped-up speed boats that ferry Cubans out of the country. While some head for Florida, most arrive on the Caribbean coast of Mexico or Central America and make their way north to the U.S., where they usually are allowed to stay.

"Part of the Cuban agenda presented to the government of the United States is a proposal for a new immigration agreement and solidifying cooperation in the fight against people trafficking," Rodriguez said.

Under U.S. law, Cubans captured at sea are usually deported while those who reach American soil can apply for residency — making Mexico an attractive route. Cuba has long denounced Washington's so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy as encouraging illegal immigration.

Rodriguez said the United States has yet to respond to Cuba's proposals, however, and a spokeswoman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — which Washington maintains instead of an embassy since the two countries do not have diplomatic relations — said Thursday that Washington has not yet finalized an exact date for the talks.

Biannual discussions between the U.S. and Cuba were limited to immigration from 1994 until they were canceled under President George W. Bush in 2003. They began anew in New York in July, and both sides called that session positive.

But a second round of discussions planned for December were pushed back.

Looming over the encounter is the arrest of a U.S. government contractor who was detained in Cuba in December for allegedly distributing prohibited satellite communications equipment.

Cuba accuses him of being a spy. U.S. officials deny that, saying he was not working with groups opposed to the communist government but with a religious and cultural organization.

Rodriguez said that under American law, the detainee "would at least be considered an agent of a foreign power."

"Evidently the government of the United States will not quit endorsing the destruction of the Cuban revolution, the political structure of the government of our country," he said. "In any part of the world that would be a serious crime."

Still, Rodriguez said Cuba has coordinated with the U.S. on transporting aid to Haiti, with 60 U.S. flights using airspace in eastern Cuba to reach the quake-devastated country since Havana temporarily opened it to American planes.

"There have been some exchanges between the Foreign Relations Ministry of Cuba and the State Department on an eventual cooperation in Haiti," he said.