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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
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U.S., Cuba resume direct mail talks


Published:

TAMPA - For the holidays, Jorge Astorquiza's brother-in-law sent a Christmas card from Cuba to his sister and her family in Tampa.

He mailed the card in October. It didn't arrive until January.

Such delays might finally change as the United States and Cuba begin to talk today regarding direct mail service, which was suspended between the two countries 50 years ago. Since 1963, letters have to go back and forth via third countries.

Astorquiza said the change would be huge for Tampa's large Cuban population.

"All type of communication is good," said Astorquiza, a Tampa businessman. "Direct mail is important to maintain the family contact. Family members can remain on top of what's happening without a delay in correspondence. Typically a letter to Cuba takes a month to a month and a half to arrive. In that time, the events discussed in the letter are old stories."

In and of themselves, the discussions are not particularly significant, but the fact the two Cold War enemies are talking at all is. In the past, both governments have used the bilateral meetings as a pretext to discuss wider issues.

In 2009, a senior State Department official in Havana for mail talks ended up staying six extra days and even spoke secretly with Cuba's deputy foreign minister - then the highest-level meeting between the two sides in decades.

The mail talks and separate negotiations on immigration have been on hold since then over demands by Washington that Cuba release jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross. Cuba, for its part, is asking Washington to release four Cuban intelligence agents serving long jail terms in the U.S.

Astorquiza said if the mail issue is to go anywhere, the United States will need to confirm with leaders of the island nation that the correspondence will remain private.

"The correspondence must be sacred," Astorquiza said. "It must be private and a third party shouldn't have access to the information in the letter."

Tampa resident Gisela Gutierrez said more communication between residents of the two countries could help educate the Cubans living on the island and dispel their myths of life in the United States.

"With more communication there is more of an opportunity to progress," said Gutierrez, 45.

Gutierrez, who was born in Cuba but has lived in Tampa for 21 years, said she writes letters about once a week to family and friends on the island nation.

She said it usually takes about three weeks for the letters to arrive.

If both countries agree to direct mail, Gutierrez said, she would write more.

The U.S. delegation for the talks will be led by Lea Emerson, director of international postal affairs at the U.S. Postal Service. Jose Cabanas Rodriguez, Havana's top diplomat in Washington, will lead the Cuban side.

The resumption in talks does not signify any change in the Obama administration's Cuba policy, a U.S. official said, stressing that the discussions are taking place in the context of the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 and are consistent with the U.S. interest "in promoting the free flow of information to, from and within Cuba."

Washington has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for 51 years, and U.S. law says the sanctions cannot be rescinded while a Castro remains at the helm.

Daniel Duran of Tampa said a direct mail agreement could eventually help ease the tension between both countries and end the Cuban government's stronghold on its people. Today, the change could be direct mail; tomorrow, it could be something even greater, Duran said.

"It could help little by little," said Duran, 51.

jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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