US, Cuba held unannounced talks
By MATTHEW LEE and PAUL HAVEN (AP)
NEW YORK — A senior American diplomat has held unannounced, high-level talks in Havana with the Cuban government, three State Department officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday, raising hopes for a thaw in long-icy relations.
The talks were the first of their kind in years between representatives of the U.S. and Cuban governments, the bitter Cold War rivals among whom trust appears to be gradually building.
Bisa Williams, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, visited an area affected by hurricanes in the Western province of Pinar del Rio and toured a government agricultural facility during a six-day trip to Cuba this month, the officials told AP.
The meetings came on the heels of Sept. 17 talks on the possibility of restarting direct mail service between the countries, suspended since 1963. Those discussions had been public, but neither country had previously revealed that Williams remained in Havana for five extra days.
One U.S. official described the talks as "respectful" and said they were more significant for having taken place, than for any substantive breakthroughs between the two sides, which have been at odds since shortly after former Cuban leader Fidel Castro marched into Havana on New Year's Day 1959.
"We were going over ground we haven't gone over for a long time," said the official. "Each side was taking advantage of the opportunity to size each other up."
The official was not authorized to publicly discuss details of Williams' visit and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly confirmed Williams remained in Cuba and met with officials after the postal talks, but offered few details.
"Williams met with host government officials and a wide range of representatives from civil society to gain a full appreciation of the political and economic situation on the ground," he told AP.
Kelly said Williams followed up on ongoing U.S.-Cuba migration talks, the next round of which he said are tentatively scheduled to take place in December. One of the officials said those talks were likely to be held in Havana.
The last time a senior U.S. official traveled to Cuba for talks of any kind was in 2002, but Williams' extended, wide-ranging and unpublicized trip here this month was different.
U.S.-Cuban relations have improved considerably since President Barack Obama took office in January, saying he was ready to extend a hand of friendship to America's traditional foes. In addition to the mail talks, Obama has loosened financial and travel restrictions on Americans with relatives on the island.
The Americans have also made other small but significant gestures — like turning off an electronic sign that had streamed anti-Castro messages from the windows of the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Cuba instead of an embassy. The Cubans then took down dozens of large black flags they had set up nearby to block the view.
Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, Fidel, have both had warm words for the American leader, with Fidel Castro last week praising Obama as courageous for taking on climate change.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Monday in a speech at the United Nations that the communist government is ready to normalize relations with its larger neighbor and will work with Washington in the meantime on other issues such as fighting drug smuggling.
He said Cuba has sought full diplomatic relations with the U.S. for decades and repeated Raul Castro's offer to sit down with Obama for a "respectful, arm's length dialogue with the United States, without overshadowing our independence, sovereignty and self-determination."
Cuba experts say it remains to be seen whether the diplomacy of small measures is a path to ultimately reaching agreement on core issues, though diplomats on both sides have privately voiced optimism.
Obama has left intact the 47-year trade embargo on the island, and U.S. officials have said for months that they would like to see the single-party state accept some political, economic and social changes.
Associated Press writer Paul Haven reported from Havana, Cuba.
September 30, 2009
U.S. Official Meets With Cuban Authorities
By GINGER THOMPSON, New York Times
WASHINGTON — In another sign of improving relations between Cuba and the United States, a senior State Department official has talked with high-level Cuban officials in Havana about a variety of issues, including ways to improve cooperation on migration and the fight against drug trafficking.
State Department officials said the main purpose of a trip two weeks ago by the official, Bisa Williams, was to discuss restarting mail service between the United States and the Communist-ruled country.
But a State Department spokesman, Charles Luoma-Overstreet, said Tuesday that Ms. Williams was also able to meet with a senior member of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry for broader talks and was given the opportunity to tour a Cuban agricultural facility and areas affected by hurricanes in the Western province of Pinar del Río.
The talks were first reported by The Associated Press.
Mr. Luoma-Overstreet said Ms. Williams, an acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Cuba since 2002; in 2004, the Bush administration ended twice-a-year migration talks with Havana.
The Obama administration restarted those talks this year, hosting a Cuban delegation in New York. President Obama has also lifted Bush administration limits on remittances and travel for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island.
Among other small but significant gestures, United States officials turned off an electronic sign that streamed anti-Castro messages on the windows of the United States Interests Section, the diplomatic complex Washington maintains in Havana. In return, Cuban officials lowered dozens of large black flags they had raised to block the view of the sign.
“Look at the momentum; look at the pace of these steps,” said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a departure from many, many years of practice.”
State Department officials offered few details of Ms. Williams’s talks with Cuban authorities. And some played down the significance of the talks, in a nod to the political problems that changes in Cuban relations can create both here and in Havana.
Just before Ms. Williams traveled to Cuba, President Obama signed a one-year extension of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which is the law used to impose a trade embargo against Cuba.
And administration officials have repeatedly said they would not make any moves to ease the embargo until the Cuban government adopted democratic reforms.
“While neither side is saying what was discussed,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “I believe that the president has authorized these talks because he has a plan for bridging the chasm between Cuba and the United States that has existed for 50 years.
“This did not have to happen,” she added. “These talks are taking place because the president decided it’s the right thing to do.”