Will US-Cuba Refugee Talks Ease Crisis or Empower Castro?

FOR vacation-starved Clinton administration officials, there is good news and bad news inherent in upcoming talks between the US and Cuba about the Cuban rafters that have flooded the Straits of Florida in recent weeks.

The good news is that the talks might lead to an easing of the Cuban refugee crisis. Since the Mariel boat lift of 1980, the two nations have quietly held continuing discussions about migration issues - with the latest round occurring in Santiago, Cuba, last December. Thus, the upcoming New York meeting, announced on Saturday to be held midweek, represents a continuation of quiet diplomacy that has paid off in the past.

The bad news is that the talks might also give Fidel Castro Ruz a forum from which to harangue the White House about larger issues of United States policy toward Cuba.

The hirsute Cuban strongman blames the US economic embargo for the country's poor economic state - the failures of socialism and the end of Soviet aid notwithstanding. He also charges that Washington has long encouraged illegal Cuban immigration while making legal entry into the US difficult.

US officials say they would not be surprised if Cuban counterparts try to bring up these or other matters when they meet.

``We don't have an intent of expanding this dialogue, as we've said over and over again,'' said State Department spokesman Michael McCurry yesterday.

Of course, the US has larger issues it could raise with President Castro, too, such as the need for economic reform and improved human rights in a nation that now ranks among the most desperately poor in the Western hemisphere.

And pressure is increasing within Cuba for some sort of expanded dialogue with Castro. The current refugee crisis has only highlighted the fact that Cuba is, for the US, the last pariah.

While Washington is shunning Castro, it is negotiating extensively with many other nations that also have poor human rights records, such as Vietnam, China, and now even North Korea.

Some lawmakers of both parties are now asking a question not heard loudly on Capitol Hill for decades: Why not sit down with Fidel, after all?

``If we're opening the door to Vietnam and North Korea, what in the world are we doing not talking to this guy?'' said Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming in a broadcast interview over the weekend.

Those who oppose a larger dialogue say that such a forum might necessarily give Castro a propaganda edge. Lawrence Di Rita, a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says he supports low-level talks between the US and Cuba about specific topics. But Castro's ability to pound the US, unhampered by facts or domestic opposition, might give him the advantage in a larger discussion.

``The US needs to avoid giving credibility to the myth that the US has destroyed the Cuban economy,'' Mr. Di Rita says. ``And that charge gets credibility if we discuss the economic embargo.''

Castro might also be bolstered by de facto US recognition of a larger dialogue at the very moment when he is tottering on his throne, charge hard-liners. Opposition to Castro within Cuba is growing and becoming more public, they say, with an Aug. 5 clash between protesters and government forces only the tip of the iceberg.

The correct analogy with Cuba is not China, say some experts, where an entrenched but aging leadership has a firm grip on power. It is Eastern Europe, in the waning days of communism.

``Cuba is more like Czechoslovakia or Poland in the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall,'' says Frank Calzone, Washington representative for Freedom House, an organization monitoring civil rights worldwide.

Other observers point out that Castro has been defying predictions of his imminent political demise for years. The economy may indeed be in crisis, with the end of Soviet aid and the failure of this year's sugar crop. But Castro remains fully in charge, through a combination of ruthlessness and charisma.

Potential rivals within the country have been largely eliminated. In 1989, after all, Castro boldly executed one of the nation's most popular military leaders, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking.

The exodus of boat people, in this context, is a cry of despair. Unable to foresee a better future in their own nation, thousands of people are chancing dangerous waters in flimsy craft for an uncertain fate in US hands.

Nearly 17,000 Cuban rafters have been plucked from the sea by the US Coast Guard this August. Bad weather slowed the flow to a trickle over the weekend. But the promise of clearer skies and less wind mean Clinton's policies to stem the tide face a crucial test in the next few days.

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