U.S., Cuba resume formal migration talks

NEW YORK -- The U.S. State Department confirmed it was meeting here Tuesday to resume long-suspended talks between the United States and Cuba.

In a three-sentence news release, the department said the talks would ``focus on how best to promote safe, legal and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States.''

The U.S. delegation, which includes representatives of the agencies involved in migration issues, was headed by Craig Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Congressional sources said Dagoberto Rodríguez, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official and the former head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, was to lead the Cuban delegation.

The talks come as the administration looks to improve relations with Havana and months after President Barack Obama lifted some travel and gift restrictions for those with relatives on the island.

The talks are controversial among Cuban-American politicians who have asked the Obama administration to prod Cuba to make some changes before reestablishing a dialogue.

Formal talks between the two governments were last held in 2003 but were scrapped in 2004 after President George W. Bush accused Havana of not cooperating with the U.S.-Cuba migration accord.

''This is a welcome development because the two governments are talking, because migration affects both of our interests, and because this can be a starting point for discussions on drugs, the environment, and ultimately, diplomacy and politics,'' said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates for normalized relations with Cuba.

Florida Republicans criticized the resumption of talks, with Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen saying the Cuban regime has failed to honor the migration accords.

''It is unfortunate that, once again, the Cuban regime is being rewarded with overtures from the U.S. government despite its ongoing atrocities against the Cuban people and policies that undermine U.S. security interests and priorities,'' she said.

And Sen. Mel Martinez called for the administration to ''push for firm commitments'' from the Cuban government, now headed by Raúl Castro.

Noting that the Bush administration scuttled talks ''because of the Cuban regime's failure to live up to its commitments,'' Martinez said the administration should require Havana to meet its obligations, particularly allowing U.S. officials to check on Cubans who are returned to the island.