The News From Cuba

CLINTON administration officials say they are done debating and are close to announcing plans to allow American news bureaus to set up shop in Cuba.

It's a move that has received at least cautious support from just about everyone, and it's easy to see why. Opening up communication will increase pressure on the Communist regime to reform. Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, who is helping sell the idea, correctly says having US journalists present to witness human rights violations can help stop those violations. Even the influential Cuban-American National Foundation says the proposal is a good idea, if it is done properly.

Under the present system, in place since 1969 when Havana expelled an Associated Press reporter, the typical scenario goes something like this: A correspondent is granted a visa to Cuba, spends time there talking with sources, returns home, and files a story Cubans never get to read. It goes without saying that if US journalists are living in the country, and if Cubans are allowed to read what they're writing, the dynamic will change.

There are, however, some legitimate concerns. First is whether President Fidel Castro will accept the plan. The Monitor recently reported on the seizure of fax machines by Cuban security police as part of a crackdown on independent journalists who transmit stories to foreign publications.

Even if the move reflected the government's anxiety over the one-year anniversary of the sinking of a boatload of refugees by the Cuban military, as some observers believe, it doesn't bode well for the beginning of greater press freedom in Cuba.

Critics in the US warn that foreign news bureaus will pump hard currency into Cuba and help its economy. But compared with the number of tourists who will potentially flock to Cuba if President Clinton lifts sanctions on travel, the much smaller number of journalists renting office space and hiring outside help will have little economic impact.

By opening news bureaus in Cuba, the administration says it is advancing the two-tiered strategy of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992: to tighten the trade embargo and to increase contact between Cubans and Americans. The merits of the first part of the strategy are hotly contested; the merits of the second - freer communication - should be unquestioned.

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