US, Cuba to hold immigration talks next week

The United States and Cuba have agreed to hold immigration talks in Washington within days, a U.S. official said Saturday, the first since a similar meeting in Havana in February.

The talks scheduled for Friday are intended to monitor adherence to a 16-year-old agreement under which the United States issues 20,000 visas to Cubans a year, though in the past the sides have used the meeting to delve into more contentious issues.

In the last round of talks, U.S. diplomats pressed Cuba to release Alan Gross, a jailed American contractor that Cuba has accused of spying. Gross has been jailed for more than 6 months without charge.

The American delegation also met with dissidents in Havana, raising the ire of Cuban officials.

The latest round of talks will take place at an as-yet undetermined location in Washington, Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S Interests Section in Havana, told The Associated Press. The U.S. maintains the Interests Section instead of an embassy.

After a brief period of hope that U.S. President Barack Obama would usher in a new era of rapprochement with America's longtime Caribbean foe, relations between the United States and Cuba have been on a downward trajectory for some months.

Fidel Castro, once a grudging admirer of the president, has been harshly critical lately of everything from Obama's work at global climate change talks, to America's backing of Israel, to the use of American soldiers as part of relief efforts in quake-ravaged Haiti.

Cuba was particularly angry when Washington included the island on a list of state sponsors of terrorism back in December.

For its part, U.S. officials have made clear that there is little hope for improved relations while Cuba holds Gross. They have also continued to call on Fidel and his brother, President Raul Castro, to open up the island's political system to democratic reform. Cuba insists that the U.S. drop its 48-year trade embargo and stop meddling in the island's internal affairs.

Despite the lukewarm relations, there have been far more contacts between U.S. and Cuban officials than in years past. The State Department confirmed bilateral talks a few weeks ago on how to respond to the Gulf oil spill, which could threaten Cuban shores. And American and Cuban officials have met to discuss ways to coordinate aid to Haiti.

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