U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Havana on Friday for high-level talks on immigration, but the conversation was sure to turn to stickier issues, including the detention of an American contractor accused of spying.
The negotiations began just after 9 a.m. at an undisclosed location in Havana, said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains here instead of an embassy.
The regularly scheduled talks come at a low point in relations between two Cold War enemies that have been at each other's throats for months about a range of issues, notably the Dec. 3 arrest of Alan P. Gross, a 60-year-old American contractor who was in Cuba on a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
He has been held without charge at Havana's high-security Villa Marista jail. Cuban President Raul Castro has said the man was spying, and that his presence was evidence that Washington is still trying to overthrow Cuba's government 51 years after the revolution.
The little-known USAID program was begun under President George W. Bush and devotes millions of dollars to the promotion of democracy on the island.
Gross's company, Bethesda, Maryland-based DAI, says he was distributing communications equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community, not to dissidents. Nonetheless, such equipment is tightly controlled by the communist government.
U.S. officials questioned the timing of Gross' arrest, saying he had been to Havana before on the same program and never had a problem. Gross' wife, Judy, issued a video statement Thursday pleading for his release and saying he was a "humanitarian," not a spy.
The American delegation in Havana was being led by Craig Kelly, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and the most senior U.S. official to travel to Cuba in years. One of Kelly's subordinates, Bisa Williams, came in September for separate talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service.
When she stayed on in Havana and held secret talks with Cuban officials, hopes were high that the breakthrough would herald a new relationship across the Florida Straits.
In fact, Cuba and the United States have been in a nonstop war of words since then over nearly every issue imaginable, from President Barack Obama's performance at climate talks in Copenhagen, which Fidel Castro called "deceitful" and "demagogic," to the U.S. relief effort in Haiti, which he termed an occupation.
Cuba was particularly angered by Washington's decision to continue including it on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Then there are the perennial issues such as Washington's insistence that Cuba open its political system to democratic reform and free jailed political prisoners, and Cuba's demand that Washington drop its 48-year trade embargo and stop meddling in what Havana considers its internal affairs.
Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said the imbroglio over the contractor "adds another sensitive issue to a long list."
"Anything that further complicates the U.S.-Cuba relationship is inherently not going to help," he said.
The immigration talks began in 1994 but were suspended under President George W. Bush. They resumed in July and are meant to be held twice annually. The aim is to monitor adherence to a 16-year-old agreement under which the United States issues 20,000 emigration visas to Cubans per year.
The accord seeks to avoid a repeat of the rafters crisis of 1994, when Cuba briefly opened its borders and tens of thousands tried to make it to American soil on rickety rafts, with many perishing at sea.
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