Video: Flying to Cuba getting easier

updated 9/17/2009 12:16:32 PM ET 2009-09-17T16:16:32

Cuba and the United States sat down for rare talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service Thursday, a modest but positive step that caps a bitter week of recriminations over the extension of Washington's trade embargo against the communist-run island.

A U.S. delegation led by Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, traveled to the Cuban capital for the negotiations.

It was the first time State Department officials have traveled to Cuba for talks since late 2002, Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains here instead of an embassy, told The Associated Press.

Representatives of the U.S. postal service were also present.

The Cuban government had no immediate comment, not even to confirm the talks were taking place. Neither side would say where in Havana they were being held.

Stopped in 1963
Direct mail service between the United States and Cuba was suspended in August 1963, the year after Washington imposed its embargo. Letters sent currently between the two nations will arrive — eventually, and with a bit of luck — but must pass through a third country first.

The U.S. first suggested restarting direct service back in 1999, then repeated the offer in 2000, 2002 and 2008. Cuba accepted in May, and formalized its offer to host the talks when representatives of the two nations met on the sidelines of bilateral migration talks held in New York in July.

Berbena said the talks would take all day and be limited to mail service. She said President Barack Obama's administration sees the negotiations "as a potential avenue to improve communication between our countries' peoples."

Those were rare positive sentiments in a week of snubs that have dashed hopes for a comprehensive breakthrough in relations anytime soon.

Embargo still an issue
On Monday, Obama signed a measure formally extending the 47-year-old embargo for one year. The move was symbolic, since it would take an act of Congress to legally end the sanctions.

Video: Cuba's allure outweighs U.S. travel ban But some had hoped the president would withhold his signature — which would have been a powerful sign that it was time for a new debate on bilateral relations.

Two days later, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez demanded that Washington do away with the embargo without waiting for anything in return, saying his country would not make any political or policy concessions — no matter how small — even in the unlikely event the U.S. were to meet those demands and ends sanctions.

U.S. officials have said for months that they would like to see the single-party, communist state accept some political, economic or social changes, but Rodriguez said his country was under no obligation to appease Washington.

The embargo "is unilateral and should be lifted unilaterally," he said.

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