- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2013

The announcement that U.S. and Cuban officials will hold landmark talks this week about restarting direct mail service between the two nations prompted a mix of reactions Monday on whether the Obama administration plans a broader outreach to the Castro regime.

Veteran Cuba watchers agreed that the development is unlikely to trigger a wider normalization in relations any time soon. But the notion that the talks — slated for Thursday and Friday — could pull Washington and Havana closer than they’ve been in more than half a century prompted a harsh reaction from at least one Republican on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said that the White House is caving to pressure from Cuban leaders desperate to end trade restrictions frozen since the 1960s.

“The regime is once again manipulating the U.S. administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and make further concessions,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, a former chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch opponent of easing the standoff that has defined bilateral relations since Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to house Soviet ballistic missiles in 1961.

Mr. Castro, 86, stepped down in 2008, and the top post is now held by his 82-year-old brother Raul.

The State Department said Monday that the postal talks will occur well within policy boundaries set long ago by Congress.

The talks will be led by R. Cabanas Rodriguez, the chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Lea Emerson, the U.S. Postal Service’s director of international postal affairs.

Similar negotiations in 2009 failed to produce an agreement. Separate negotiations on issues such as immigration have been on hold in recent years amid tensions simmering between the U.S. and Cuba over the trade embargo and Washington’s unwillingness to remove Cuba from its official list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Washington also has demanded that Cuba release jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 while working for a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program. Cuban authorities gave Mr. Gross a 15-year prison sentence and accused him of illegally delivering satellite phones to individuals in the nation’s Jewish community.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen alluded to the case in a statement Monday, asserting that “a U.S. citizen languishes unjustly in a Cuban prison and brave freedom Cuban activists are risking their lives while on hunger strikes to protest the island tyranny.”

Some Cuba policy specialists suggested the postal talks could lead to something more ambitious

“This is the way diplomacy is conducted,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas in New York. “The idea some have, that these talks represent a concession, when in fact it will open up precisely the channels of communication we want to have, defies the very notion of diplomacy and the stated goals of our Cuba policy.”

But advocates of such an opening were less than impressed Monday by the announcement that postal talks will be held this week. “Any step taken toward expanding the free flow of information and resources from the United States to the Cuban people is a step in the right direction, but it does fall short of Obama’s stated goal of really seeking a new beginning and a new relationship,” said Ricardo Herrero, deputy executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based Cuban exile organization.

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