It's Time to Strike Up a Conversation With Castro

CUBA is in a state of flux. Confronted with the end of Soviet support and an economy in serious difficulty, Fidel Castro is seeking ways to save himself and his revolution.

Mr. Castro is opening the country to joint ventures with foreign capitalists; some 185 such agreements have been signed. He is permitting the operation of free farmers' markets and the establishment of small private shops. Last month he received an old comrade turned adversary, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, for a long conversation on Cuba's future.

Recent visitors to Cuba report that, although elements in the government resist even minor economic reforms, Castro's brother Raul sees reforms as essential if violence in the island is to be prevented. Clearly, however, such reforms - forced by circumstances - come gradually and, for many in the Communist Party, reluctantly.

Because of proximity and history, the US is inescapably a player in Cuba's future. The ultimate choice between two opposing approaches will determine what Washington's role will be.

Leaders of Miami's Cuban exile community, supported by conservatives in the US Congress, believe that change will come only when Castro falls. That fall, they believe, can be hastened by toughening the embargoes already in effect. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina sponsored legislation that would penalize foreign nations, companies, and individuals who trade and invest in Cuba - believing that commercial activity and foreign investment continue to prop up the regime.

Inherent in the approach by many exiles in Miami is the dream that, with an end to Castro's rule, they will be able to return and establish a new regime on the island. That dream also carries the hope that Washington will aid them - with troops if necessary.

Few experts outside of Miami, however, believe either that economic measures will topple Castro or that the populace is looking toward the exiles for its salvation. Further, in the present mood in the US, the possibility of the US military helping the exiles to return is remote.

By contrast, many who know Cuba - including some Cuban-Americans - stress that the time has come to relax constraints on contact with the island and actively explore better relations. They fear that the confrontational approach will not bring results and will only lead to violence and new boat lifts. The view comes in part from those who believe that the current embargo forecloses opportunities for US businesses. Others view the embargo as only hardening Castro's resistance and feeding Cuban nationalist sentiment. They see opening the gates to US individuals, money, and influences as one of the best means of forcing change.

To be successful, however, this approach would need to overcome not only the complexities of unraveling past embargoes, but Castro's inevitable resistance to accompanying demands for democratization and free market policies.

Any approach that suggests engagement with Castro requires some form of negotiation. Critics of contacts with the regime say that negotiations with communist Cuba are impossible. Yet the US has negotiated with the Cuban authorities on several issues over many years, including the Bay of Pigs prisoners, narcotics patrols, hijacking, and boat migrations. Results positive for the US have been obtained in each case. In each case, also, Cubans have pressed for wider negotiations on the US embargoes. Until now, at least, no administration has believed it politically possible to move beyond agendas focused on single specific issues.

For more than 30 years, Cuba has been a major frustration for US policymakers. Why cannot a powerful nation exercise more influence over a small country lying just 90 miles off its shores? Efforts to form a policy have been hampered by political posturing and exile hopes. In the public mind, any recognition of possible gains in the Cuban revolution have been offset by strong opposition to its undemocratic ways. Although reconsideration of Cuban policy may have to await the next US election, clearly the time is not far off for some basic decisions in Washington's approach to the island. To best preserve US interests and influence in a changing Cuba, those decisions should embrace active contacts with the Cuban people and government.

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