US and Cuban officials to hold talks amid tensions over migration

US and Cuban officials to hold talks amid tensions over migration

HAVANA, April 18th  American and Cuban officials are due to meet in Washington on Thursday to discuss migration concerns, people familiar with the matter said, in the highest-level formal US talks with Havana since Joe Biden took office last year.

The meeting comes at a time when Biden’s administration is grappling with rising numbers of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the US border from Mexico, with Cubans making up a growing portion of them.

Tensions between Washington and Havana over the Cuban government’s crackdown on protests, continuing American sanctions on the communist-ruled island, and other issues have made it difficult for the countries to cooperate on challenges such as irregular migration.

Leading the Cuban delegation will be the deputy foreign minister, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, two sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The delegation is expected to meet with senior officials of the US state department and other agencies.

The US wants Cuba to take back more deportees from among the record numbers of Cubans arriving at the US-Mexico border, according to a US official and another source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cuba has said it supports legal, orderly, and safe migration. It blames the US for the uptick in irregular migration, saying cold war-era sanctions and a decision to close the American consular section in Havana encourage Cubans to seek riskier routes to leave the island.

The state department last month said it would again begin processing some visas for Cubans in Havana to start reducing the backlog after a four-year hiatus, but progress has been slow.

“We have seen a significant increase in irregular Cuban migrants to the United States, both via land and maritime routes,” a state department spokesperson said. “Cubans currently rank the second-largest group arriving at the United States south-west border.”

The spokesperson, who asked not to be named, declined to confirm the planned meeting but said “we regularly engage with Cuban officials on issues of importance to the US government, such as human rights and migration”.

Thursday’s planned talks appear to be at a higher level than known formal contacts since Biden took office in January 2021.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.

The talks are scheduled to be held just a day after the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and regional counterparts are due to wrap up a conference on migration in Panama. Cuba is not due to attend that conference.

A record number of migrants attempted to cross the US-Mexican border during Biden’s first year in office. American officials are preparing for even higher numbers this year.

Amid Cuba’s faltering economy, after Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cubans in November, many dropped everything, sold their homes, and took a flight for Managua, with hopes of heading north through Central America to the US.

Nicaragua, a close regional ally of Cuba, said the move was intended to promote commercial exchange, tourism and humanitarian family relations.

Initial fervor has been followed by frustration as the US has undertaken a regional effort to curb border crossings.

The number of Cubans apprehended at the US-Mexico border reached 16,531 in February, the highest single-month total on record, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Even as Washington and Havana prepare to re-engage on migration, Biden administration officials are mindful that any easing of restrictions on Cuba could lead to the political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in South Florida.

Donald Trump rolled back a historic rapprochement that his predecessor Barack Obama oversaw between the US and its old cold war foe.