U.S., Cuban diplomats meet as Congress holds trade hearing

WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. State Department officials met with Cuba's top diplomat on Monday.

Administration officials insisted the meeting between Thomas Shannon, assistantsecretary of state for hemispheric affairs, and Jorge Bolanos, the chief of Cuba'sInterests Section in Washington, was not part of a push for increased talks with Havana,even though President Barack Obama's recent overtures to Havana were expected to bediscussed.

"There's no list prepared that we're going into the meeting with,'' said state department spokesman Robert Wood. "We have concerns about Cuban policies. We'll be raising them.

"I'm sure that there will be a discussion of the president's steps that he announced recently,'' Wood said. "But beyond that, I don't have much of an agenda.''

A senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the meeting was "one of a series'' to discuss issues like pending visa cases, and that meetings had taken placed under President George W. Bush as well.

The meeting comes two weeks after Obama lifted restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba for those with family on the island. But administration officials said they were waiting to gauge Cuba's reaction.

"We've done our opening initiatives which the president talked about,'' the administration official said. "We've taken that initial first step and we're waiting for a response from the Cuban government.''

Alberto Gonzalez Casals, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, which serves as a de facto embassy, declined to comment on the meeting, The Associated Press reported.

The meeting also came as Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who recently traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel and Raul Castro, promised at a House hearing "to do all I can to both open up markets for U.S. commerce...while also, at the same time, help bring liberty and prosperity to the Cuban people.''

Among those championing more contact: Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., who pressed Commerce Department officials to support her bid to allow charter flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport. The United States currently allows flights only from Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

Commerce Department officials said the matter falls under the jurisidiction of the Department of Homeland Security, but promised after Castor complained of "passing the buck'' to see that DHS contacts Castor.

"I'm asking for your help as these families wait in line to try to see their family members,'' Castor said, noting that "travel agents now are absolutely overwhelmed.''

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pledged support for lifting trade sanctions against Cuba, arguing that opening trade would "bring political and economic change to the island.''

But James Cason, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said trade would do little to help Cuban people who have little buying power to purchase U.S. goods.

"There are no Cuban entrepreneurs, no free market policies, no economic opportunity and no purchasing power,'' Cason said. "There's just the regime, which resists change in a panicky attempt to maintain total power.''