By Kevin Sullivan | Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY, Jan. 7—U.S. officials said Wednesday that they have postponed scheduled immigration talks with Cuban officials, prompting the government of President Fidel Castro to charge that the Bush administration is “aggravating the tensions between both countries” for political purposes in an election year.
The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said U.S. officials declined to attend a meeting proposed by the Cubans for Thursday in Havana because the Cubans were unwilling to discuss key issues on the U.S. agenda.
“The point is not just to have a meeting; the point is to deal with the serious issues involved,” Boucher told reporters Wednesday.
The talks, normally held every six months in alternating countries, are the highest-level regular diplomatic contact between the two nations, which have not had formal relations in more than 40 years.
The meetings were established under accords reached in 1994 and 1995, and are intended to avoid an exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States. In the summer of 1994, more than 30,000 Cubans set out for the United States on boats and rafts.
The White House has taken an increasingly hard line against Castro’s government. Bush administration officials have worked to tighten the four-decade-old economic embargo against Cuba and have punished U.S. citizens who have visited Cuba in violation of a near-total travel ban.
Roger Noriega, the State Department’s top official on Latin American issues, warned Tuesday that Castro, whom he described as a “broken-down old dictator,” was promoting “provocative” policies designed to destabilize democratic governments in the hemisphere.
A statement issued by the Cuban Foreign Ministry said the U.S. decision not to attend the immigration meeting “is compounded by the long list of aggressions, plans and statements made in the last few months against our country by the U.S. government.” It said the United States charged that Cuba was not “seriously addressing” the issues between the countries.
“In the imperial language of the U.S. officials,” the statement said, the U.S. stance “means that Cuba should be willing to make all necessary unilateral concessions and accept all demands and whims from the U.S. authorities.”
The Cuban statement also charged that the Bush administration was trying to appeal to Miami-based Cuban exiles who oppose Castro and have clout in U.S. presidential politics. Boucher said the decision was “not an election issue.”
Under U.S.-Cuban immigration accords, the United States agreed to return Cuban refugees picked up at sea. But the United States also maintains a policy known as “wet-foot, dry-foot,” in which Cubans who make it to land are allowed to stay.
Cuban officials have long argued that the policy encourages Cubans to try to make the dangerous crossing and violates the spirit of the immigration accords. The Cuban statement issued Tuesday called the policy “irrational” and an obstacle to “normalization of the migration flow.”
Boucher said the Cuban government had failed to honor several aspects of the immigration accords, including issuance of exit permits for those who qualify for U.S. visas.
He also said Cuba continued to bar U.S. diplomats in Cuba from traveling throughout the island, a restriction put in place a year ago when Cuba rounded up and jailed scores of dissidents accused of conspiring with the United States to undermine Castro’s government.
“We’re moving toward a situation where there are fewer and fewer normal contacts between the two governments,” said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana who now works at the Center for International Policy in Washington, which favors increased ties between the countries.