CUBAN President Fidel Castro Ruz was asked what he thought of President Clinton.
``If I say good things about this administration, their adversaries will say they're soft on Castro. If I say bad things, it makes our situation worse. So, I say nothing,'' the uniformed leader told a small group of journalists and foreign visitors.
Mr. Castro's response fits with Cuban efforts to avoid confrontation with this administration. Some have called it a charm offensive. Indeed, the vitriolic rhetoric - coming from both sides during the last two Republican administrations - has disappeared since Mr. Clinton took office.
But just because the cold war is over and Democrats have the White House, don't expect a softer stance on Cuba, US State Department officials say.
``We can neither ignore nor negotiate away the human and political rights of the Cuban people,'' said Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson last week. ``There will be no upgrade in relations until rights are respected.''
The 31-year-old US trade embargo - initially installed due to Cuban nationalization of US-owned properties - remains firmly in place. The Clinton policy toward Cuba is guided by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightens the embargo while expanding telecommunications and facilitating humanitarian aid to individuals and non-governmental organizations.
State Department officials admit that the justifications for the embargo have shifted. Until recently, it was seen as punishment for the Cuban policy of fomenting armed revolution and giving the Soviets a springboard for meddling off the coast of the United States. Those rationales are no longer valid. So the current official reason for the embargo is to push Cuba toward progress on human rights and democracy.
But the US has only two remaining allies in the UN who support the ban. Washington had urged UN members not to act yesterday on a Cuban resolution against the ban, hoping to prevent a vote in the General Assembly. The UN voted in favor of a similar resolution last year.
Colombia announced last week the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Diplomats here, and some US policy analysts, question the logic and consistency of the continuing trade sanctions.
``The US policy is irrational,'' says one diplomat. ``North Americans should ask themselves what their role should be in Cuba. Is it to stop Castro with a policy that has not worked for 31 years? What if it does suddenly work? What if you do create an economic basket case on your doorstep and force Castro out of office in a violent uprising? Do you want another Haiti?''
The alternative many European countries advocate is to lift the embargo and let Castro prove his contention that the limits on political and human rights are the byproducts of a small country defending itself from terrorist attacks launched by Cuban exiles in the US and an embargo imposed by the world's only superpower.
``Keep in mind we have been in a state of war for 34 years,'' says Soledad Cruz, a noted Cuban columnist. She observes that similar civil rights restrictions were imposed in Britain during World War II. ``The US blockade unites us behind a common enemy, but it also impedes the natural development of a democracy.... US aggression is the best justification for the Cuban government to reduce civil liberties and freedom of expression. If there was no blockade, there would be no government justification for not giving the opposition political space,'' she says.
Peter Hakim, acting director of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy research group, agrees. ``The embargo gives Fidel Castro an excuse for lousy economic policy and continued political repression. But Cuba's human rights violations aren't worthy of an embargo.''
Human rights organizations such as Americas Watch and the UN Human Rights Commission criticize Cuba's government for a range of abuses that include beatings, harassment, and arbitrary detention of rights activists; the lack of free speech and the right to peaceful assembly; and a lack of due process under the law.
Cuban officials reply that the US has no embargo on many other countries with far worse human rights records.
``Those that blockade us have excellent relations with Argentina, where 100,000 people have been `disappeared,' '' Castro notes. ``We have no death squads here killing children who are homeless and hungry just to clean them from the streets,'' a reference to Brazil.
``Don't look for freedom of expression in Cuba because you won't find it,'' says Miguel Alfonso, a member of the Cuban government delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission. ``But what about the right to life - the most basic of human rights? Here, there is the right to food, to health care, to education. How many people are alive today in Cuba because of the revolution? Compare the life expectancy of Guatemalans and Cubans and tell me who's human rights are being violated.''
Mary Jane Camejo, a research associate at Americas Watch, says the social and economic advances of Cuba ``don't justify a police state,'' but ``some of worst human rights violations today are taking place in the so-called democratic countries.''
``Cuba does not have death squads, systematic torture with instruments of torture, no disappearances. The really gross human rights abuses that occured or occur in Latin America don't take place in Cuba,'' Ms. Camejo says.
If the argument for the embargo is fraught with inconsistencies, why does it continue? ``The Cuban American National Foundation is a very effective lobbying group in Washington,'' Hakim says. ``That makes a policy change very difficult.''
US State Department officials admit to an element of inertia in Cuba policy. But they say they cannot make a change unless Cuba first takes the steps.