WASHINGTON – In a new overture to Cuba, the Obama administration asked the island's communist government on Friday to resume talks on legal immigration of Cubans to the United States suspended by former President George W. Bush.
The State Department said it had proposed that the discussions, which were halted after the last meeting in 2003, be restarted to "reaffirm both sides' commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration, to review trends in illegal Cuban migration to the United States and to improve operational relations with Cuba on migration issues."
President Barack Obama "wants to ensure that we are doing all we can to support the Cuban people in fulfilling their desire to live in freedom," said Darla Jordan, a department spokeswoman. "He will continue to make policy decisions accordingly."
The move follows Obama's decision in April to rescind restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans with family there and on the amount of money they can send to their relatives on the island.
It also comes ahead of a high-level meeting early next month of the Organization of American States, where Cuba's possible re-entry into the regional bloc will be discussed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend the June 2 meeting in Honduras.
Clinton, however, told lawmakers this week that the U.S. would not support Cuba's membership in the organization until and unless President Raul Castro's regime makes democratic reforms and releases political prisoners.
She and Obama have also said that broader engagement with Cuba, including the possible lifting of the U.S. embargo on the island, is dependent on such steps.
There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government on Friday, but communist officials were angered when the Bush administration decided to scuttle the talks on grounds they were not crucial for monitoring agreements aimed at preventing a mass exodus from the island.
In Miami on Friday, the influential Cuban American National Foundation welcomed the news, saying resumed migration talks could be "an opportunity to resolve issues of United States national interest."
However, three Cuban-American members of Congress from Florida denounced the move as "another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship."
"The United States suspended the 'migration talks' with the Cuban dictatorship in January 2004 because the Cuban regime refused to comply with basic aspects of the Migration Accord of 1995," Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother Mario and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said in a statement. "The Cuban regime continues to violate the accord by denying hundreds of exit permits annually to Cuban nationals who have received visas to enter the United States. The Obama administration should first insist that the Castro dictatorship complies with the accord before renewing 'talks.'"
The twice-yearly meetings in alternating countries had been the highest level contacts between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations.
The suspension of the talks occurred during an especially prickly period during which then-president Fidel Castro publicly criticizing James Cason, at the time head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as a "bully" and Washington condemning Havana for a crackdown that rounded up 75 dissidents and sentenced them to long prison terms.
The talks were created so the countries could track adherence to 1994 and 1995 accords designed to promote legal, orderly migration between the two countries. The aim was to avoid a repeat of the summer of 1994, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the sea in flimsy boats.