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Cuba, United States meet on migration in latest sign of a thaw

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Officials from the United States and Cuba met in Havana on Thursday to discuss longstanding migration accords in the latest sign of a new collaborative spirit between the Cold War foes.

The migration talks are the highest public contact between the two governments, which do not have diplomatic relations, and recent meetings have been increasingly constructive, officials say.

The respective delegations were led by Edward Alex Lee, the U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba's director-general of the U.S. Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"The meeting took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling," Cuba said in a brief statement issued when the talks ended.

There was no immediate statement from the United States.

It was the second such meeting since 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 meet every six months to review the issue.

Over the past half century, thousands of Cubans have died trying to cross the treacherous Florida Straits to the United States on flimsy boats and homemade rafts.

The United States now accepts about 20,000 Cubans annually via legal immigration and also takes in those who manage to reach U.S. shores. But under the "wet foot, dry foot policy" it turns back Cubans picked up at sea.

U.S. immigration authorities reported 13,000 Cubans crossed the Mexican border and were accepted as residents in 2013, along with thousands more who visited the country and decided to stay.

Cuba has long been critical of the 1960s Cuban adjustment still in force, under which Cubans who reach U.S. shores are welcomed.

"The Cuban delegation insisted once again on the fact that ... there could not be a legal, safe and orderly migration as long as the wet foot/dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act are not derogated, for these are the main encouragement to illegal departures and irregular arrivals of Cuban citizens in the US territory," the Cuban statement said.

The United States issued 24,727 Cuban immigrant visas in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2013, compared with 26,720 the previous year, while the number of visitor visas more than doubled to 29,927, compared with 14,362 in 2012.

The two governments have also held talks in recent months on resuming direct postal service, coordination in containing maritime disasters such as oil spills and regularly collaborate on drug trafficking interdiction.

State Department and Cuban officials have told Reuters recent contacts have been cordial with little of the customary rhetoric from both sides, symbolized by President Barack Obama's and Raul Castro's handshake in South Africa in December at the memorial for Nelson Mandela.

U.S. and Cuban officials overcame a series of potentially divisive incidents last year with mutual displays of pragmatism rarely seen since Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

They included Cuba's decision not to offer a safe haven to Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, who is sought by the United States for alleged espionage, and the diplomatically deft U.S. handling of a North Korean ship carrying Cuban weapons in possible violation of U.N. sanctions.

The migration and postal talks were suspended in 2003 by President George W. Bush. They were briefly revived by the Obama administration in 2009, but were suspended again in 2011, when American contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.

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 early in 2009 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.

The migration talks have often included other issues, such as Gross's detention and the fate of five Cuban intelligence officials arrested more than 15 years ago in Florida, four of whom remain behind bars.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown, Rosalind Russell and Leslie Adler)

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