By Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. and Cuban officials met in Washington for talks about migration on Thursday as the United States seeks to quell rising numbers of people attempting to cross its southern border, including increasing numbers of Cubans.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the talks, the highest-level formal contact with Havana since President Joe Biden took office last year, were “squarely focused on migration.”
“We’ve seen a significant increase in irregular migration on the part of Cuban migrants coming to the United States – that includes both the overland routes and maritime routes,” Price said.
Cuba’s foreign ministry, in a statement issued Thursday evening following the talks, blamed the spike in irregular migration off the island on U.S. policy that “creates social and economic conditions that incentivize emigration.”
“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.”
Communist-run Cuba has maintained that the United States is seeking to foment strife and suffering on the island by tightening Cold War-era sanctions to create economic hardship while at the same time throwing up barriers to migration.
The island’s government has demanded the United States issue more visas for Cubans wishing to travel to the United States to comply with prior agreements.
Emily Mendrala, Washington’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led a U.S. delegation to the talks and Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio led the Cuban delegation, the State Department said in a statement.
The meeting focused on ways to address illegal immigration, changing migration trends, deportations and embassy functions, the state department said.
Tensions between Washington and Havana over the Cuban government’s crackdown on protests, continuing American sanctions on the island and other issues have increasingly complicated cooperation between the two countries.
Thursday’s meeting, first reported by Reuters, comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Panama this week for talks with Western Hemisphere nations, not including Cuba, aimed at stemming refugee and migrant flows from across the Western Hemisphere.
In Panama, Mayorkas said Washington would explore the possibility of resuming migration accords with Cuba that had been discontinued.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Marc Frank, Dave Sherwood and Ted Hesson; Editing by Chris Reese, Alistair Bell and Kenneth Maxwell)