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US, Cuba hold migration talks in Washington

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HAVANA (AP) — U.S. and Cuban officials discussed efforts to combat illegal migration, human smuggling and migratory document fraud in Washington on Wednesday, a rare moment of dialogue between countries that cut ties more than five decades ago.

The latest round of biannual migration talks was carried out in a "respectful environment," Cuba's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It added that Havana was pleased the two nations agreed in early July to enforce a search-and-rescue protocol for distressed persons on the high seas.

There were also points of contention. Cuba aired concerns about banking difficulties for its diplomatic missions in the United States that have led it to cut consular services at the two outposts. It also complained again about policies letting Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil stay and apply for residency after a year.

"The Cuban delegation insisted that alien smuggling and illegal migration would not be eradicated, nor could there be a legal, safe and orderly migration between the two countries, as long as the 'wet foot/dry foot' policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act remain in force," the statement said.

The talks are supposed to be held every six months to monitor the implementation of 1990s migration accords, and often touch on other areas of mutual concern.

They were suspended in 2011, the same year Cuba sentenced U.S. government development subcontractor Alan Gross to 15 years in prison after he was detained with restricted communications equipment while working to set up Internet networks for Jewish groups on the island.

Talks resumed two years later, along with separate discussions on re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries.

A U.S. State Department statement called the talks routine and said they did not indicate a change in policy toward Cuba. It added that they were consistent with U.S. interest in ensuring safe, legal and orderly migration between the countries, and an opportunity to talk about things such as civil liberties.

"In our interactions with the Cubans, the United States also regularly raises our concerns about the continued detention of Alan Gross, the poor state of human rights in Cuba and fugitives from U.S. justice," the statement said.

Havana has said it is willing to talk about Gross' case and any other matter, but it also wants to negotiate the fate of three Cuban intelligence agents serving long prison terms in the United States.

The U.S. statement said the delegations at the one-day migration talks were headed by Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Josefina Vidal, the top official for North American affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry.

U.S.-Cuba relations were severed in 1961 at the height of Cold War tensions. Since the late 1970s, however, Washington and Havana have maintained diplomatic missions in each other's capitals that are technically "interests sections" of the respective Swiss embassies.

The U.S. economic and financial embargo against Cuba has been in effect since 1962.

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi

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