By Jeff Franks
U.S. and Cuban officials began exploratory talks on Thursday on the possibility of restoring direct mail service between their two countries for the first time in 46 years.
The talks, the result of a proposal by the United States in May, are viewed as another step in President Barack Obama's efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.
An official at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana confirmed the meeting had begun but could not disclose its location.
The U.S. delegation includes officials from the U.S. Postal Service and is led by Bisa Williams, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. She is the most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba from the Obama administration.
Cuba has said nothing officially about the meeting.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said on Wednesday in Washington these were to be exploratory talks aimed at improving "communication with the Cuban people" through the re-establishment of direct mail services.
Washington, which had imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in February 1962, cut off direct mail service in August 1963 as part of its campaign to subvert Fidel Castro's communist government, which came to power in a 1959 revolution. Castro, 83, resigned last year on health grounds and now brother Raul Castro, 78, leads the country.
Mail between the United States and Cuba must go through third countries and can take as long as two months to deliver.
Obama, saying he wants to improve ties, has lifted restrictions on travel and cash transfers to Cuba by Cuban Americans, and taken steps to reopen dialogue with the Cuban government that predecessor George W. Bush shut down.
But he has said the embargo will remain until Cuba shows progress on human rights and releases political prisoners, issues that Havana says are internal matters.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez complained in a news conference on Wednesday that despite Obama's "good intentions," the embargo, which Cuba blames for many of its economic problems, is still in place and little has changed.
The United States said it had proposed postal service discussions with Cuba several times over the years before the invitation made in May was accepted.
Analysts say Cuba views the idea of direct mail from the United States with suspicion because of concerns its opponents there could send arms or ammunition to be used against the government or subversive literature to incite its people.
Cuba also has insisted that direct mail service must be accompanied by resumption of scheduled commercial flights from the United States. Currently, only charter flights operate.
Logistically, restoration of mail service could pose problems for Cuba, where Communist Party newspaper Granma reported last year that postal facilities were in a "high degree of deterioration."
Cuba expert Kevin Casas-Zamora at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington said the pursuit of talks on practical issues between the long-time ideological foes was "the right way to repair relations."
"These types of things are key for creating confidence and putting in motion positive dynamics between the two governments," he said.