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Cuban Americans hold rare meeting to discuss normalizing Cuba relations

By David Adams

MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban Americans met in Miami on Saturday to discuss how to normalize relations with Cuba and end the five decade-long United States embargo against the communist-run island, the first such gathering in a decade in a city better known for hostility toward the communist-run island.

The one-day event was organized by four groups led by Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), founded two years ago to counteract the influence of traditional Cuban exile organizations that support the embargo. Held at a hotel conference room it attracted about 125 attendees, including several invited speakers from Cuba.

"This is a historic event that unites different organizations that are willing to sit down and discuss ways to stimulate the normalization of relations," said Hugo Cancio, publisher of OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine which opened an office in Cuba last year.

"We want to tell the U.S. and the Cuban governments to find a way to better the lives of the Cuban people, and to let us participate in the economic transformation of Cuba," he said.

Under U.S. law Cuban Americans are allowed to send unlimited money to relatives on the island, but Cuba does not allow non-residents to invest directly in business or property.

That could change under a foreign investment law being debated in Cuba, said one of the speakers, Roberto Veiga, deputy editor of Espacio Laical, a highly-read magazine of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Havana.

"That is a decisive factor for Cuba," he said. "But there is resistance (within the Cuban government) to investment from Miami because ... the Cubans here in Miami have money and the Cubans on the island don't," he added.

The conference comes on the heels of a national poll last month that found a strong majority of Americans - and an even greater percentage of Floridians - support normalizing relations with Cuba.

The organizers said two Cuban officials from Cuba's diplomatic mission in Washington - which is not an embassy as the two countries broke formal diplomatic ties decades ago - were invited to speak but were denied permission to travel to Miami by the U.S. State Department.

Unlike attempts in past years to promote engagement with the Cuban government, Saturday's meeting went off without protests from anti-Castro groups in Miami.

"It just shows that the community is really ready to have a serious debate on U.S.-Cuba policy," said Ricardo Herrero, a director of the Cuba Study Group, a Miami exile organization that supports closer ties with Cuba.

"Cuba is no longer the third rail in politics. People see all the activity that is going on in Cuba and they are looking for opportunities now that there are cracks in the system down there."

Larger Cuban American exile groups oppose engagement with Cuba while its one-party communist system remains in place.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, the most powerful Cuban exile lobby group in Washington, described some of the organizers as being Castro sympathizers.

"This isn't the first event of this type, they spring up from time to time," he said recalling a period in the 1990s when some exiles groups came together to challenge the embargo.

The Obama administration has eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, but U.S. officials say Washington is looking for concessions from Cuba before taking any further steps. Congress has also shown no interest in lifting the embargo in a decade.

CONVERSATION AMONG CUBANS

The conference was billed as a "conversation among Cubans" and included topics ranging from economic reforms in Cuba to travel regulations for Cubans and Americans visiting the island.

One speaker, Abiel San Miguel-Estevez, manager of a privately run restaurant in Havana, Doña Eutimia, gave a power-point presentation on the laws governing the administration of private businesses in Cuba.

"There are more and more places where you can eat well in Cuba. The private sector is growing fast," he said.

Cuba is in the midst of a five-year plan to "modernize" its state-run socialist system under President Raul Castro, gradually shedding state jobs and moving workers into the private sector in a quest to improve efficiency and raise living standards.

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel said U.S. organized tours to Cuba tend to be dominated by elderly, wealthy, white Americans, as they cost around $3,500 for a week. "The U.S. government needs to let us open up travel so we can diversify who is going," he said, referring to the restrictions placed on travel by U.S. citizens.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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