THERE are some quiet signs that after 35 years of hostility a fresh United States approach to Cuba has been started. But the Clinton administration publicly vows to maintain the embargo on Cuba despite calls on Christmas Day in Havana by the Rev. Jesse Jackson for an end to the ``suffering'' it causes.
``We will continue our diplomatic, political, and economic isolation of the Cuban government and maintain our economic embargo as a form of leverage,'' Alexander Watson, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
``Children are suffering because of Castro's policies, not the US embargo,'' says Jose Cardenas, spokesman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, an influential exile group that opposes any engagement with President Fidel Castro Ruz.
And yet, quietly, a shift in US-Cuban relations has begun, involving policies on immigration, security, health, humanitarian aid, telecommunications, and drugs.
``If they were not so scared of domestic political repercussions, they could describe it as a change with bugles blowing,'' says Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University government professor currently with the Inter-American Dialogue, an independent research-policy analysis group in Washington.
The changes include:
* US talks with Havana that led Cuba to accept back 150 of up to 6,000 Cubans who came on the 1980 Mariel boat lift, committed crimes in the US, and are being held in local, state, and federal jails for deportation.
* Cuba handed over to the US Coast Guard-suspected drug smugglers who took shelter in Cuban waters.
* The US sent officials from the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to fight a reported epidemic in Cuba.
* The first confidence-building measures took place at Guantanamo Naval Station when US military officials notified their Cuban counterparts about impending maneuvers. Professor Dominguez called it ``a classic maneuver ... to send a political signal.''
* This month, after the State Department Cuba coordinator said he would only meet with Cuban exile groups that abide by the law, the Miami-based coalition Unidad Cubana expelled Alpha 66, a hard-line exile group that has threatened attacks on foreign tourists to Cuba.
* Charter flights to Havana were increased, and talks are under way to increase telecommunications links from the US to Cuba.
The Clinton administration, with one eye on the Cuban exiles' influence on volatile Florida politics, has played down the shift. ``The president's dual commitment is to enforce a strong economic embargo against the Cuban regime while reaching out to the people of Cuba,'' said Mr. Watson, who blamed Cuba's economic collapse on ``failures of Cuba's command economy.''
Dominguez agreed that the major causes of the Cuban collapse are economic mismanagement and the collapse of Cuba's Soviet bloc allies. ``If the embargo was lifted tomorrow, nothing would happen because Cuba doesn't produce,'' he says.
But to some, US treatment of Cuba seems unfair and unproductive. China has a poor record on allowing democratic elections and human rights, but the US has not resorted to an embargo there, says Moises Naim, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ``If you want to accelerate change on the island, no force is more destabilizing than open borders and open trade. I would send containers of fax machines, computers, and copy machines.''
The Cuban Interests Section spokesman in Washington, Jose Ponce, says that despite the embargo, investment is coming to Cuba from Spain, France, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Italy - mainly in tourism.
The United Nations General Assembly voted this year for the second time to ask the US to lift its embargo. And virtually every Latin American nation maintains diplomatic and trade ties with Havana and opposes the embargo.
US officials estimated recently that some $700 million in food and medicine trade to Cuba was cut off this year after the Cuban Democracy Act forbade subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba. ``It created a lot of shortages for the population,'' Mr. Ponce says.
He says the Cuban exile community is encouraging raft people by giving them a hero's welcome when they land. Unlike Haitians, who are liable to be deported if they land in Florida, all Cubans are eligible for residency and citizenship under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act - a relic of the cold-war days that Congress is reluctant to revisit.
It is unlikely Congress will repeal the Cuban Democracy Act that tightened the embargo this year. ``Until the Clinton administration signals a change in policy, everything will be at the margins,'' a key congressional staff member said.