Troubled waters

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.

Cuba calls the policy "the killer law," blaming it for the deaths of Cuban rafters who disappear in the Florida Straits each year or drown — like the mother of Elian Gonzalez, the boy who returned to the island with his father after a massive custody dispute partly fueled by the peculiarities of U.S.-Cuba migration rules.

U.S. officials maintain that Cuban migrants are refugees from the island's communist system and failed state-run economy, and the differing vision has periodically resulted in crisis. During the Mariel boat lift of 1980, 125,000 Cubans arrived en masse in Florida, and another 40,000 came during the 1994 rafter crisis, an event that shaped key parts of the current migratory agreement between the two countries.

As part of that arrangement, Cubans who are intercepted at sea by U.S. authorities are returned to Cuba, while those who successfully reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay under the terms of the Cuban Adjustment Act. The policy is known as "wet foot/dry foot," and the Cuban government says it increases the riskiness of the crossing, benefiting smugglers, who can charge $10,000 or more for the harrowing midnight speedboat ride to Florida.

Since 1995, the number of Cuban migrants picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard has soared, according to U.S. government data, reaching an all-time high of 2,868 during the 2007 fiscal year.

Both the U.S. and Cuba would rather migrants use a visa program called the Special Cuban Migration Lottery, known on the streets of Havana as "el Bombo," that was also set up following the 1994 rafter crisis.

Visa recipients are said to have "won" the Bombo if chosen, and each year, the U.S. is supposed to grant 20,000 immigration visas through its Havana-based consular offices, though the actual number has routinely fallen short of that (for which each side blames the other). During the last registration period, in 1998, some 541,000 Cubans submitted their names for the lottery system, according to U.S. officials — roughly 5 percent of the the island's entire population of 11 million.

The 1994 agreements also established that the two countries would meet semi-annually in the interest of safe, orderly and legal migration. But in 2004, those meetings were broken off by the Bush administration.

Now those talks are expected to provide the framework for wider engagement. Acting on an Obama campaign pledge to reach out to Cuba, the U.S. administration announced earlier this month that it would resume the migration talks. Cuba has accepted a proposal to discuss the resumption of direct mail service as well, and asked to expand the discussions to include matters of mutual interest like anti-narcotics enforcement, hurricane preparedness, and counter-terrorism efforts.

"President Obama and I are committed to a new approach," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time. "We believe we have made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years."

No date for the meetings has been set, but State Department officials said they are close to finalizing an agreement.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Cuba: 

Cuba libre

The future of Cuba

A remnant of the Cold War