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Troubled waters

US and Cuba look for a bridge, but there's a lot of water between them.

Cuban migrants trying to reach Florida riding on a 1951 Chevrolet truck, converted into a marine vessel with air-filled drums for flotation and a propeller, July 16, 2003. (U.S. Coast Guard-Handout/Reuters)

HAVANA — In their diplomatic relations, the U.S. and Cuba are like a bitterly divorced couple, whose shared history is so marred by grudges and recriminations it's hard to figure out how to start talking again.

So with the Obama administration offering a fresh start and an open hand, and Cuba welcoming the overtures, the two sides are preparing to meet for talks on a topic of common concern: migration. The discussions are widely viewed as potential building blocks for a broader dialogue between the two countries.

And yet, as icebreakers go, Cuban migration to the U.S. is not exactly the stuff of small talk. In some ways, the issue is at the core of the two nations' 50-year standoff, and several long-held tenets of American policy are likely to come under renewed scrutiny if the Obama administration actually engages with Cuban grievances.

"In the context of economic warfare against the Cuban Revolution," reads a statement from Cuba's Foreign Ministry, "the migratory policy of the United States has constituted one of the most important instruments of American hostility toward the island, designed to destabilize Cuban society, discredit its political system, drain Cuba of human capital and lay the groundwork for counter-revolutionary movements tasked with carrying out terrorist attacks and aggressive acts against the Cuban people as they strive to build a new nation."

In other words, there's some history here.

Central to Havana's ire is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the U.S. law allowing most Cuban migrants who reach American soil to become permanent residents and receive government assistance — a privilege, in the words of a recent U.S. congressional report, "that no other group or nationality has." According to the report, some 50,000 Cubans became permanent U.S. residents in the 2008 government fiscal year, making the island the fifth-largest source of legal permanent residents to the U.S., after Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines.

Some Cuban migrants make the 90-mile journey in smugglers' speedboats or homemade rafts. But an increasing number arrive at U.S. entry points via Mexico, with nearly 10,000 Cubans entering through the Laredo border crossing in the 2008 fiscal year. While migrants from other countries try to sneak in, the Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to come into the country right through the front door, regardless of whether or not they have a visa.

That special privilege, according to the Cuban government, has resulted in a powerful and insidious incentive for its citizens to leave the island, often at great personal risk. On the one hand, Havana argues, the U.S. tries to squeeze the island economically with trade sanctions, while on the other, it bestows favored treatment upon Cuban migrants seeking to escape the island's poverty.