Highly anticipated immigration talks between Cuba and the United States have been pushed back because of scheduling concerns that each side blames on the other, another hint that reconciliation may be more difficult than it once appeared.
A U.S. State Department official told The Associated Press on Friday that both sides intend to continue holding periodic negotiations on immigration issues twice a year, but that bureaucratic concerns derailed talks that had been scheduled for early December in Havana.
"At the Cuban government's request, the talks have been rescheduled for February," he said.
A senior Cuban official confirmed that the negotiations had been delayed, but said it was at Washington's bidding _ not Cuba's.
"We were ready to hold the talks in December," he said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the delay publicly.
They agreed that the postponement had nothing to do with politics, but it was another sign of fraying in what months ago seemed like a golden opportunity to end a half-century of discord.
"One does have the impression that things are rather stalled, and the postponement of these talks will add to that impression," said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington and the former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which the U.S. maintains here instead of an embassy. "It's very disappointing."
He blamed officials in Washington for dragging their feet, saying President Barack Obama had taken baby steps and failed to show Havana he was serious about changing U.S. policy.
Last month, the State Department denounced an assault _ allegedly by plainclothes state security agents _ against Cuba's top dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez. Obama later sent a lengthy personal message to her, praising her for her work and answering a series of questions she had posed.
This week, prominent American black leaders denounced racism on the island _ a particularly touchy subject in Cuba _ prompting a blistering response from Cuban artists, writers and intellectuals who said their society is not racist.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro has used recent essays on world events to lay into Obama for America's policy in Honduras, which he says amounts to support of this summer's military coup there, and in Colombia, where the U.S. recently signed an accord that will allow American soldiers increased access to seven of that country's military bases.
Castro said the plan amounted to a military annexation of Colombia by Washington, saying that country was being "devoured by the empire with the same ease with which a lizard swallows a fly."
Last week, Cuba conducted war games against a U.S. invasion, which Cuban military leaders insist is still a real possibility.
Regularly scheduled discussions between the U.S. and Cuba were limited to immigration issues from 1994 until they were canceled under President George W. Bush in 2003. Both sides met to discuss the issue in New York in July and called that session positive.
In September, Cuba and the United States revived talks to restore direct mail service between both countries since Obama took office. Bisa Williams, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs who traveled to Havana for those discussions, stayed an extra six days and even met with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, raising hopes for a thaw in relations.
But those hopes have fizzled somewhat.
Cuban officials say they have made concrete proposals to the United States to hold talks on counternarcotics, disaster preparedness and other issues _ but have not heard back. Washington, in turn, says Cuba has done little to inspire confidence that it will allow social, political or economic changes _ something the U.S. said is a prerequisite to moving forward.
"We are waiting to see what kind of opening they are going to give their own people," a second, more senior State Department official told AP in a recent interview, also on condition of anonymity. "Their own people are asking for it. That would put more wind in our sails, so to speak, and help the dynamic moving forward."