US-Cuba tensions persist after high-level migration talks

Discussions on migration held in Washington this week amid increasing numbers of Cubans trying to enter the US.

Woman standing in front of flag
The US and Cuba this week held their highest-level diplomatic talks in four years, after a severe disruption in ties during the administration of former President Donald Trump [File: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Cuba’s foreign minister has called on the United States to fully comply with bilateral agreements between the two countries on migration and stop what he said are policies that prevent Cubans from travelling to the US and abroad.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Friday said the US should stop “violating the rights of Cubans to travel” in the region.

“Cuba reiterates that the US should cease hindering and violating the rights of Cubans to travel to third countries of the region and calls for comprehensive and non-selective compliance with the bilateral migration accords,” Rodriguez said in a tweet.

His remarks came a day after the US and Cuba held their highest-level diplomatic talks in four years, after a severe disruption in ties during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

The discussions on Thursday in Washington between senior Department of State officials and Cuba’s deputy foreign minister focused on migration, with the US side eager to rein in a growing number of Cubans trying to enter the US, sometimes without documentation.

Cuba’s foreign ministry said US policies and sanctions create “social and economic conditions that incentivize emigration”.

The island’s government has also demanded the US issue more visas for Cubans wishing to travel to the US in line with prior agreements, and faulted the US for offering only limited consular services in Havana, forcing Cubans to file for visas in Guyana instead.

“These measures, including those associated with the extreme tightening of the economic blockade, are leading to the loss of human lives and … crimes such as illicit alien smuggling, migration fraud and people-trafficking, which affect both countries and the region,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the US Department of State said the talks had covered areas of successful cooperation but also identified obstacles to ensuring safe, orderly and legal migration.

Cuban migrants
US Customs and Border Protection said it had stopped Cubans more than 79,800 times from October through March [File: Ranu Abhelakh/Reuters]

The meeting also took place just a day after US border authorities reported that the number of Cubans seeking entry into the country had doubled from February to March to 32,500 and is now five times the number it was in October.

Experts have said an economic crisis in the country, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is one of the major reasons people are leaving.

“We have seen, and this I think underscores the imperative of undertaking these talks, we’ve seen a significant increase in irregular migration on a part of Cuban migrants coming to the United States,” Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday.

However, tensions between Washington and Havana have been increasing over other issues, as well, including the Cuban government’s crackdown on protests and continuing US sanctions against the Caribbean nation.

Cases of what became known as “Havana Syndrome” were a major sticking point during the Trump administration, which also rolled back the rapprochement between the US and Cuba that had been initiated by former President Barack Obama.

President Joe Biden, who had supported Obama’s efforts while serving as his vice president, had been expected to restore some of the Obama-era initiatives after he took office in January 2021.

But he has yet to do so and US restrictions on Cuba remain at the level to which Trump had restored them. Migration talks between the two countries had not been held since 2018.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been leaning on other regional governments to do more to stop migrants from reaching the US, most recently during a visit this week to Panama by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The summit in Panama City, which included representatives from more than 20 nations in the Americas region, did not include Cuba.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies