Senior U.S. diplomat meets Cuban official

Mon Apr 27, 2009 9:21pm BST

* Second meeting between U.S. and Cuban diplomats

* Follows Obama move to ease travel restrictions

* U.S. official says two sides still "very far apart"

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, April 27 (Reuters) - Tiptoeing toward a cautious detente with Havana, a senior U.S. diplomat held on Monday his second round of meetings this month with Cuba's representative in Washington, the State Department said.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon met with the head of Cuba's Interest Section in the U.S. capital, Jorge Bolanos, a follow-on from a meeting they had in Washington on April 13.

"These meetings happen periodically," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood, who cautioned reporters over reading too much into the latest encounter.

"I'm not trying to make more or less of it," added Wood when pressed whether this indicated a further warming of ties between the two countries.

Cuba and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations but both countries have outposts, or interest sections, in their capitals.

A spokesman at Cuba's office in Washington said he had "no comment" on Monday's meeting between the two diplomats.

In an about-face from the Bush administration, U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to "recast" relations with the communist government in Cuba.

Obama this month lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans, allowing them to travel freely to Cuba and send money to relatives there.

But he says the U.S. trade embargo imposed on Cuba after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution will remain in place until the one-party state shows signs of democratic reform.

The Obama administration also relaxed restrictions on U.S. telecommunications companies dealing with Cuba.

"We want to see the Cuban government reciprocate," Wood said. "We have some very serious concerns about the lack of democracy in Cuba. And we want to see steps taken to improve the situation there," he added.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said while Shannon's meeting was significant, there was a long way to go.

"We are certainly nowhere near normal relations with Cuba," the official said.

Senior diplomats from the former Bush administration also met occasionally with Cuba's representative in the United States but the tone of those meetings was more negative, the senior State Department official said.

"Expect a different tone in these discussions but the two sides remain very far apart in terms of a detente," he added of Shannon's meeting on Monday.

The United States is also looking for clarity on the Cuban government's overall stand toward Washington, particularly after negative comments made by Fidel Castro, who contradicted his brother's more positive tone after Obama's talk of a rapprochement.

The 82-year-old former leader of Cuba said his brother, President Raul Castro, was misinterpreted when he said Cuba was prepared to discuss "everything" with the United States, including political prisoners and human rights issues.

(Editing by Eric Beech)