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By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba have agreed to resume regular migration talks in a possible sign of thawing relations after more than three years of tensions over Cuba's jailing of a U.S. government contract worker.
The announcement of the talks Wednesday came as Cuban and U.S. officials met in Washington for discussions exploring the restoration of direct mail service between the two countries after a 50-year ban.
The new round of migration talks on July 17 "do not represent a significant change in U.S. policy towards Cuba," a State Department official said on condition of anonymity.
Migration between the two countries has long been a thorny issue. Diplomatic relations have been frozen since soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, and hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles fled their homeland for South Florida in the decades that followed.
Migration talks were suspended in 2003 by President George W. Bush. The talks were briefly revived by the Obama administration in 2009, but were suspended again in 2011, when American contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.
Gross' arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 stalled a brief period of detente in U.S.-Cuba relations after President Barack Obama took office early in 2009 and quickly loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban Americans with relatives in Cuba.
Cuba relaxed its own restrictions on travel in January, increasing the number of Cubans able to travel legally to the United States and allowing several prominent dissidents to travel abroad freely since then.
"In the past two months, a very slow thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations has been perceptible," said Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington Office on Latin America.
"These are modest but sensible steps. What's significant is less the steps themselves than the fact that there is movement in the relationship. It's a real break from the status quo."
U.S. officials played down the significance of the migration talks, noting that it was consistent with a broader policy of engagement with countries the U.S. does not have full diplomatic relations with.
One senior official said the talks are part of a wider U.S. engagement with the region, citing recent trips to Latin America by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry is a longtime advocate of greater engagement with Cuba, and his confirmation as Secretary of State early this year encouraged to supporters of lifting the embargo.
Many obstacles remain, foremost among them a 51-year-old U.S. trade embargo that by law can only be lifted if Cuba agrees to abandon its one-party communist system.
In a statement on Wednesday, Cuba described the postal talks as fruitful but emphasized that a "stable, quality and safe postal service" could not resume while the embargo was in place.
The most immediate stumbling blocks to any long-term warming of relations continue to be the fate of Gross, as well as four Cuban spies jailed in the United States.
Cuba has hinted it might release Gross if the United States agrees to free the four spies who are considered national heroes by Havana. Washington says releasing them is out of the question, noting that one of the four was sentenced to life for conspiracy to commit murder.
Cuba recently agreed to allow an American doctor to examine Gross, satisfying a longstanding demand by his family and the U.S. government. Gross, 64, has lost 100 pounds (45 kg), in jail, and relatives want him treated for a tumor.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Doina Chiacu)