By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
HAVANA – Cuba and the United States announced Friday they have struck a deal to re-establish direct mail service, which was cut in 1963 at the height of Cold War tensions.
Both countries said that they would launch a pilot program to test direct service. They gave no date for the permanent resumption of service, but indicated that it would not be imminent, saying that technical, operational and safety aspects remained under discussion.
The announcement came six days before the anniversary of the announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro that they were re-establishing diplomatic relations. The Obama administration has been trying to show tangible results of the new policy ahead of the anniversary.
The governments have been speaking about restoring a postal link since Obama entered office, but the talks stalled when Cuba imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was freed under last year’s deal. Although direct mail service was halted in 1963, a relatively small number of letters and packages travel back and forth through countries like Canada and Mexico.
The major effect of regular mail service would be in opening a new channel for the movement of goods between the U.S. and Cuba, which suffers from widespread shortages of basic consumer products ranging from batteries to diapers. Mail is, however, unlikely to become a near-term rival to informal networks of importers that pay couriers to bring hundreds of millions of dollars of goods a year into the country in their checked bags.
Cuba maintains strict limits on the size, weight and value of packages sent by mail in order to maintain its state monopoly on imports and exports. Further complicating matters is the renowned inefficiency of the Cuban postal service, the subject of frequent complaints about lost and delayed mail.