Cuba and the United States launched their highest-level talks in a generation, agreeing to disagree on basic immigration policies but recognizing a new spirit of cooperation.
Wednesday's meeting was the first of two days of sessions in the Cuban capital, the first official face-to-face talks since Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to open diplomatic ties after half a century of animosity.
As could be expected, however, little progress was made on long-standing disputes.
Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of affairs with the U.S., criticized the American policies that allow Cubans who enter the U.S. illegally to remain there. The so-called wet-foot, dry-foot rules are a "preferential treatment" afforded uniquely to Cubans that constitute the "principal incentive and stimulus" behind the flight of Cubans from the island, she said.
Vidal said the ease of immigration was also contributing to a brain drain of doctors and engineers who travel legally to third countries and then defect to the U.S.
Her U.S. counterpart in Wednesday's talks, Alex Lee, said American officials made it clear that the U.S government would keep the special status in place. The exchange came after a significant increase last month in the number of Cubans braving the seas to reach Florida.
The U.S. "is committed to ensuring that migration remains safe, legal and orderly," said Lee, deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Lee and Vidal, director general of the Foreign Ministry's U.S. division, briefed reporters separately after the first round of talks. On Thursday, Roberta Jacobson, an assistant secretary of State, will join the talks, which will move into broader issues involving the normalization of diplomatic relations. She is the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with the Cuban government here in 35 years.
Vidal said the migration policies, which have been in effect for nearly 20 years, contradict the new spirit of engagement. Still, she and Lee sounded upbeat despite the differences and promised to continue working on the issue.
President Obama, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, said the "expiration date" on Washington's adversarial policies toward Cuba had long passed and the government's new attitude had "the potential to end a legacy of mistrust."
Cuban officials have been trying to play down expectations, however, warning that they have no intention of changing the communist nation's political system or one-party rule.
"This was a constructive environment of talks," Vidal said. Migration talks have been taking place twice a year for some time, but Wednesday's round is different because it will continue for a second day and focus on diplomatic relations.
"Cuba wants a normal relationship with the U.S., in the broadest sense but also in the area of migration," Vidal said.
The Americans also asked Cuba to consider accepting the return of "excludable aliens," for the most part Cuban nationals convicted of crimes in the United States. Lee said it was an obligation of every country to take back its citizens. Cuba has generally not been willing to do so when it came to convicted criminals.
Vidal did not comment directly on that point. She welcomed what she called a decision by the U.S. to increase to 20,000 the number of U.S. visas granted to Cubans to allow a greater number of legal visits.
The increase in seaborne migrants heading north may be in response to fear among Cubans that the U.S. will eliminate the wet-foot, dry-foot policy.