MIAMI -- The Obama administration is working with Havana to finalize dates to resume long-suspended discussions between the two countries, as Cuban officials signal their interest in expanding the talks beyond migration.
A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the agency is looking to confirm dates for the talks, which had been held twice a year until they were suspended in 2004 by the Bush administration.
U.S. officials last month delivered a diplomatic note to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, asking to resume the biannual migration talks in a bid to "reaffirm both sides' commitment to safe, legal and orderly migration."
Critics of renewing the talks until Cuba has shown some democratic change pointed to the recent arrest of a former State Department employee and his wife on spy charges, suggesting that the talks be postponed until Congress has considered the breach of security posed by the two accused spies.
"I'm surprised State is still pushing for a hasty reinstatement of the talks," Florida Sen. Mel Martinez said. "There are legitimate concerns about the extent of the recent espionage uncovered by the FBI. What's the rush to conduct talks with the Cuban regime when we still don't have a full damage assessment of the regime's covert efforts?"
Some Cuba observers had suggested a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week to not take up an appeal in a case involving five convicted Cuban spies could also slow progress.
But in Havana, the head of Cuba's parliament said the Supreme Court's decision won't jeopardize negotiations with Washington, even though the Cuban government considers the denied appeal "a great insult."
Ricardo Alarcon told The Associated Press in an interview late Wednesday night that no date has been set for immigration talks with the United States, but he said Raul Castro's government hopes to expand the agenda to include environmental issues and efforts against terrorism, drug smuggling and natural disasters.
Yet Alarcon also called the United States "an ignorant lion," criticizing the Supreme Court's refusal to hear an appeal by the so-called "Cuban Five," convicted of being unregistered foreign agents by a Miami court in 2001. Their lawyers claim that anti-Castro sentiment kept them from receiving a fair trial in South Florida.
Cuban officials say the men were heroes trying to avert terrorist attacks on the island, and have held massive rallies for their freedom, plastering their faces on billboards and commissioning songs, poems and paintings in their honor. Alarcon said the government will continue campaigning on their behalf, but suggested that their legal status won't impede U.S.-Cuban talks, the AP reported.
"We share the sentiments of many who feel insulted by that decision, but I don't see why one necessarily has to affect the other," Alarcon said.
The five were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life. Three were also found guilty of conspiracy to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command.
A three-judge federal appeals court panel reversed their convictions in 2005, but the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reinstated them, ordering new sentences for two of the men in coming months.
Alarcon said the men's freedom will be "at the top" of any list of priorities in talks with U.S. leaders, adding that President Barack Obama "has a moral obligation" to pardon the five if he really wants improved relations with Cuba and Latin America.
Still, he acknowledged that Obama has a clear desire for improved U.S.-Cuban ties, and noted that "there is an obvious change in language" in Washington, even if some people are "working to try and sabotage that."
Cuba's parliament meets just two weekends a year, when its members do little more than unanimously back measures proposed by Castro's government. Alarcon is one of the island's most-public faces. He lived in the United States for years as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations, and answered questions in the Wednesday interview partly in English.
Alarcon suggested that the June 4 arrest of two new accused Cuban spies, retired State Department official Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, was intended to undermine improved relations between the neighboring nations.
"The administration makes traveling to Cuba easier for Cuban Americans and Congress is discussing the elimination of travel restrictions for everyone, and suddenly this strange case pops up," he said, calling it something "out of a police novel."
The pair are not believed to have been paid, but rather to have been ideological supporters of the communist-run island.
"Cuba does not buy spies," he said. "They don't do it for money."
Copyright 2009, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Reprinted Via Newscom.