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US Holding Talks With Cuba on Obama Outreach

The State Department says U.S. diplomats are holding talks with officials of Cuba's diplomatic mission in Washington on possible follow-up measures to steps President Barack Obama took earlier this month to ease restrictions on the island nation. The Obama administration says it wants to see an easing of political conditions by the Havana government.

The State Department says its top official for Latin America met with the head of Cuba's diplomatic interests section in Washington on Monday for the second time in as many weeks for exploratory talks on prospects for improving the historically-chilly U.S. Cuban relationship.

Two weeks ago, on the eve of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama eased travel restrictions and remittance rules for U.S. citizens with relatives in Cuba in keeping with the new administration's stated commitment to reach out to U.S. adversaries.

State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood says Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon called in Cuban mission chief Jorge Bolanos to brief him on those actions on April 13, the day they were announced, and said they had a follow-up discussion on Monday at an undisclosed location here in Washington.

Wood said the Obama administration would like to see the communist government in Havana reciprocate the U.S. opening with steps to ease political restrictions in Cuba.

"We want to see the Cuban government reciprocate," said Robert Wood. "We'd like to see a release of political prisoners. There are a host of steps that the Cuban government can take and we'd like to see. I'm not going to put conditionality on things. Clearly there are some steps the Cuban government needs to do with regard to its own people, allowing the Cuban people to have some of the freedoms that are enjoyed in other countries in the hemisphere."

Wood downplayed the significance of Shannon's meetings with the Cuban official, saying the two sides have had discussions in the past when events warranted them. But another official here said he was aware of only one such meeting during the last year of the Bush administration.

The New York Times newspaper reported on Monday that a series of such meetings are being planned to determine whether the two governments could open formal talks on a variety of issues - including migration, drug trafficking and regional security issues.

After easing the U.S. embargo on Cuba two weeks ago, President Obama said that it was up to Cuba to take the next step.

Cuban President Raul Castro said in apparent response that his government is ready for dialogue all issues, including human rights, provided that the talks occur on equal terms and without challenging Cuba's sovereignty.

Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro later appeared to roll-back his brother's overture, saying his stated willingness to discuss all issues had been misinterpreted.

The United States and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961, but they opened interests sections in each others' capitals in 1977 to handle consular issues, visas and other routine matters. The interests sections are technically part of the Swiss embassies in Havana and Washington.