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Troubled waters

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

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