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U.S. official praises new tone with Cuba, visits jailed contractor

Demonstrators gather during a rally for U.S. detainee Alan Gross in Lafayette Square in Washington December 3, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Gary
Demonstrators gather during a rally for U.S. detainee Alan Gross in Lafayette Square in Washington December 3, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Gary

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. State Department official in Cuba for migration talks praised on Friday the tone of current relations between the United States and Cuba, and visited jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross during a three-day trip to the Communist-run island to demonstrate Washington's concern over his plight.

Edward Alex Lee, the U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said migration talks held on Thursday were "very constructive and have led to some positive outcomes," but he did not elaborate.

Lee said he also met with dissidents and other government officials without divulging the contents of his conversations.

Talks between the two countries were suspended in 2003 by President George W. Bush. They were briefly revived by President Barack Obama's administration in 2009, but were suspended in 2011 when Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.

Cuba, whose delegation was led by Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director general of the U.S. Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that the talks had taken place in a "respectful environment".

The strained relationship between the long-time foes has eased since Obama began his second term in office. Recently, State Department and Cuban officials told Reuters that contacts have been cordial - highlighted by Obama's handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa in December.

"Despite our historically difficult relationship, over the course of the past year and a half we have been able to speak to each other in a respectful and thoughtful manner," Lee told a rare press conference in Havana.

"Despite barriers, the U.S. and Cuba continue to seek opportunities to cooperate and advance our shared interests," he said, citing ongoing discussions around resuming direct postal service, preventing oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and coordinated search and rescue operations at sea.

The migration discussion was the latest high profile event between the two governments, which do not have diplomatic relations. The last such meeting was held July 2013.

Under accords signed in 1994 and 1995, both governments pledged to promote safe, legal and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States and to meet every six months to review the issue.

As part of the accords, the United States also agreed to accept 20,000 Cuban immigrants every year.

Gross's arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 stalled a brief period of detente in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama took office and quickly loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban Americans with relatives in Communist-run Cuba.

Cuba relaxed its own restrictions on travel in January 2013, increasing the number of Cubans able to travel legally to the United States and allowing prominent dissidents to travel abroad freely since then.

The United States recently began issuing five-year visas to some Cubans, instead of the usual six months.

But barriers still exist to more fundamental change in relations, principally the fate of Gross and four Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned in the United States more than 15 years ago, both discussed during the talks, Lee said.

"Throughout the discussions we expressed our sincerest hope that the government of Cuba allows Alan Gross to return to his family ... and we took note of what the Cubans said about their prisoners," Lee said, adding he had visited with the contractor but could not divulge the content of a private discussion.

(Editing by David Adams and Bernard Orr)

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