Why Not Talk to Castro?

IN dealing with Cuba, the time has long passed to exchange a Don Quixote approach for diplomacy.

Unfortunately, the United States and Cuba have missed several opportunities during the past few years to put relations on a more progressive, if still boulder-strewn, path. They risk doing so again. One result: Thousands of Cubans are fleeing the island - ironically, to end up at Guantanamo Bay. Their flight remains very hazardous. But their likelihood of survival has seldom been better; more than 70 US Coast Guard and Navy vessels, aided by military and civilian aircraft, are actively looking for them. And even if they do not automatically gain entrance to the US, they do get three square meals a day at Guantanamo, which they are less likely to get if they stay at home.

Fidel Castro's growing isolation and political vulnerability in the face of his country's economic collapse is palpable. Little wonder that reports from Miami are now surfacing that leaders of the 2506 Brigade, which Cuban forces repelled during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, are drawing up fresh plans for action against the Castro regime. Their defeat was a humiliation; and the US paid some $53 million for the release of those captured. Reviewing the order of battle represents less a military threat than an indication of the depth of hatred for Castro among many members of well-organized, financially successful, and politically active exile communities on the US East Coast.

Although such passions should not be allowed to steer Washington's response to its island neighbor, they continue to do so. As we noted recently, President Clinton's approach to handling the flood of Cubans trying to cross the Straits of Florida is appropriate. But his crackdown on remittances from expatriates to relatives back home seems designed more to please the hard-liners in the Cuban-American community than to improve the economic or political lot of Cubans.

US officials have correctly noted that in allowing Cubans to flee, Mr. Castro is using them as pawns. Yet it requires two contestants to keep the pawns in play; they remain so as long as the US response includes tit-for-tat retaliation. US UnderSecretary of State Peter Tarnoff was correct in citing 35 years of political and economic mismanagement as the cause of Castro's problems. But that shouldn't prevent Washington from having the political courage to take a step it should have taken years ago. Having claimed ``victory'' in the cold war, Washington is in a strong position. It has little to lose by opening talks with Cuba.

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