U.S.-Cuba Mail and Migration Talks: Opportunities and Limitations of Mutual Interest Cooperation

On June 18-19, Cuban and U.S. diplomats met with their postal service counterparts in Washington to discuss the possibility of ending the 50-year ban on direct mail service between the two nations, which has been in effect since 1963. On June 18, “knowledgeable sources” reported to El Nuevo Herald that the State Department and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials will hold talks to discuss migration policy starting July 17. [1. Mimi Whitefield and Juan Tamayo The Miami Herald, “Cuba, US Discuss Resuming Direct Mail; Migration Talks to be Held Next Month” Last modified June 18 2013 Accessed July 3, 2013 http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/06/18/3457813/cuba-and-us-begin-talks-on-resuming.html]

While these bilateral talks are an important step forward for both countries, on their own they do not signify a transformation of U.S.-Cuban relations or portend the emergence of a relationship of “mutual respect” between Washington and Havana. In the best-case scenario, these talks will lead to further discussions of specific issues of mutual interest, such as environmental and counterterrorism cooperation. However, until Washington can show that it has the political will to achieve durable results in its dealings with Cuba—as opposed to mere self-interest in resolving short-term issues—such negotiations will likely not amount to anything more than a transient, and ultimately meaningless, convergence of low-value interests.

Officials have stressed that these negotiations are of a technical nature, and “that they did not indicate a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.” [2. “Rare U.S.-Cuba talks to explore resuming mail services.” Reuters, June 17, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/17/us-usa-cuba-postal-idUSBRE95G0I420130617 (accessed July 3, 2013).] While the fact that the two countries are talking despite the continued detentions of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five (now four) is significant, the talks seem to imply a logistical confluence of interests as opposed to a more comprehensive rapprochement.

Cuban Five  Photo Source: axisoflogic.com
Cuban Five
Photo Source: axisoflogic.com

Mutual-Interest Cooperation

In the past, the United States and Cuba have been able to cooperate on certain issues by using a category-by-category approach to bilateral relations based on mutual interest, rather than seeking to repair ties through sweeping reforms. Such categories include cooperation in counternarcotics, “fence line” negotiations at Guantánamo Bay, and coast guard security. [3. LeoGrande, William. Latin American Studies Association, “Cranky Neighbors: 150 Years of U.S.-Cuban Relations.” Accessed July 3, 2013. http://lasa.international.pitt.edu/LARR/prot/fulltext/vol45no2/Leogrande_217-227_45-2.pdf.] As early as the 1970s, the United States (under the Carter Administration) worked with the Castro regime on areas of mutual concern, for example, signing the Cuba–United States Maritime Boundary Agreement in 1977, which helped to determine the international borders between the two nations. In the same vein as these past reforms, the direct mail and migration talks present an opening for the countries to further discuss issues of mutual interest. When asked about the mail service negotiations, Mavis Anderson, Senior Research Fellow at the Latin America Working Group responded:

“….beyond reestablishing this important link between Cubans and U.S. citizens…[the mail service negotiation] builds confidence between our two nations, perhaps provides a platform for small forays into issues beyond postal service, and demonstrates (hopefully) that Cuba and the United States can come to an agreement on issues of mutual interest.”

Mutual-interest cooperation may be the most practical way for the United States and Cuba to move towards a rapprochement. Issues like the suspension of postal service between the two countries are minor impediments that are more of a hassle than anything else, and serve little practical or political purpose. As it stands, postcards and letters sent between the two countries must go through a middleman country (usually Mexico). Restoring direct mail between the United States and Cuba would merely cut this step out of the process—at once benefiting the struggling U.S. Postal Service and citizens on both sides of the U.S.-Cuba divide by providing new US Global Mail options for all.

Cuba-U.S. Migration: A Series of Unconventional Policies

The negotiations on migration could initiate a more significant and impassioned conversation than the reestablishment of direct mail has, although this possibility by no means presupposes an immediate or straightforward path leading to a rapprochement.

Migration between the two countries is a highly contentious issue rooted in a prolonged series of sporadic agreements and negotiations. The first formalized agreement on migration came in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which accords Cuban migrants preferential treatment from the Attorney General of the United States on account of their perceived persecution within their country, and does not force them to “apply for political asylum or prove that they are refugees.” [4. “The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966: ¿Mirando por los Ojos de Don Quijote o Sancho Panza?.” Harvard Law Review. no. 3 (2001): 902-925. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.macalester.edu/stable/1342700?seq=5& (accessed July 3, 2013).] While this accord was initially intended as a response to political conditions within Cuba during the 1960s, it remains active today as the act was given no formal end date. It is still used to justify regularization of Cuban refugees once they reach the United States, even if they did so illegally.

Mariel Boatlift Photo Source: U.S. Coast Guard
Mariel Boatlift
Photo Source: U.S. Coast Guard

In 1980, the United States and Cuba attempted to coordinate a more open migration policy—leading to the Mariel Boatlift, an emigration of more than 125,000 Cubans to Miami. [5. The Miami Herald, “El Mariel Timeline.” Last modified April 16, 2010. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/04/16/1583475/el-mariel-timeline.html.] This policy ended up backfiring for President Carter, as about 10 percent of these refugees were later discovered to be either criminals or mentally institutionalized individuals, termed lumpens or “undesirables.” Furthermore, the affair cost the United States $700 million USD. [6. Ibid.] While the boatlift had negative political implications for Carter, it did eventually force the United States’ hand on migration policy. The same accords that returned the 2,746 lumpens to Cuba created a legal means for 20,000 Cubans per year to receive permanent visas to live in the United States. [7. Berman, Milton. Latin American Studies, “The Eighties in America.” Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/academic/mariel.pdf.]

When Cuba entered the “Special Period in a Time of Peace,” the economic near-collapse that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a rising number of Cubans sought to migrate illegally to the United States by boat—and almost 40,000 illegal migrants were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1994. [8. Wasem, Ruth. Congressional Research Service, “Cuban Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends.” Last modified June 02, 2009. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40566.pdf.] As a response to increased illegal migration, the 1994 Cuban Migration Agreement aimed to normalize migration between the two countries. This agreement reinforced the policy of granting 20,000 immigration visas per year and opened up other means for legal immigration, such as family-based immigration initiatives. [9. Peters, Philip. Lexington Institute, “Migration Policy reform: cuba gets started, u.s. should follow.” Last modified December 2012. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/library/resources/documents/Cuba/ResearchProducts/CubanMigration.pdf] It also indicated that: “The United States [would discontinue] its practice of granting parole to all Cuban migrants who reach U.S. territory in irregular ways.” [10. Ibid.] Regrettably, the United States has largely disregarded this commitment, on account of its “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, which admits illegal Cuban migrants to the United States if they reach land, but returns them to the island if the U.S. Coast Guard intercepts them at sea.

The Cuban Migration Agreement instituted biannual migration talks between representatives of the two nations, which proved to be an important means for mutual-interest cooperation despite perpetually strained relations between the United States and Cuba on other issues. In 2003, however, President George W. Bush suspended these biannual talks on account of their “lack of progress.” [11. Free Republic, “Cuba:U.S. Scuttling Migration Accords.” Last modified January 07, 2004. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1053147/posts.] President Obama briefly restarted migration talks in 2009, but they were frozen in 2011 with the sentencing of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was detained for illegally disseminating communications equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba. Importantly, since Obama’s election, both countries have loosened their respective travel restrictions—Obama in April 2009 and Cuban President Raúl Castro in January 2013—thereby allowing more fluid movement between the longstanding rivals. The demonstrated intention to resume migration talks further suggests that Washington and Havana are at least recognizing that the demand for bilateral contact is increasing among citizens of both countries.


The direct mail and migration talks are undoubtedly an important logistical step forward for U.S.-Cuban relations. They may even be symbolic of a positive, albeit incremental, change in the overall nature of negotiations. However, it is important to keep in mind that they are just talks. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to demonstrate that they have the political resolve to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, which will eventually involve tackling grittier, more substantive issues such as Alan Gross, the Cuban Five, and the decades-old economic embargo that still remains in place. In other words, a category-by-category approach to bilateral relations based on mutual interest can only ameliorate relations to a certain extent. According to Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “U.S. policy [towards Cuba] is to prevent the functioning of diplomacy.” As long as this policy is in place, movements toward a rapprochement will continue to be slow, uneven, and ultimately insufficient.

Phineas Rueckert, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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