President Clinton's decision last week to postpone the full implementation of the Helms-Burton legislation on Cuba reflects the intense opposition to sections of the bill by the European Union, Canada, and Latin America.
In part to counter the charge that it bowed to external pressure, the administration pledged to work with these governments to "reach common ground on efforts to promote democracy in Cuba," and announced that it would appoint a special envoy who could play an important role in shaping a more-constructive United States strategy toward Cuba.
The obstacles are formidable, but there are reasons for optimism about the prospects of the envoy's success. First, the declared US objective in Cuba - a peaceful transition to democratic rule - is shared by every government in this hemisphere and Europe. No democratic government anywhere supports the regime of Fidel Castro.
Sharp disagreements persist over the means to foster change in Cuba, but even here there may be growing convergence. The EU, for example, demands that Cuba release political prisoners and liberalize its politics as a condition for economic cooperation.
Moreover, no country wants to clash with the US over Cuba. There is too much to lose and very little to gain. Democratic governments want to cooperate with the US to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba, as they have done in South Africa, Haiti, Chile, and elsewhere.
They reject being told what to do, however. With a minimum of goodwill, the US and other governments should be able to develop complementary approaches toward Cuba.
There is no mystery about what it will take to succeed. The key is to select the right person for the post, and give him or her suitable authority to proceed. The mission cannot be too narrowly or rigidly defined. It would be a mistake to set the envoy on a salesperson's job - to convince the Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans to buy into our Cuba policy. This approach will look tough and may score political points for the administration, but it will not produce any useful results.
A second, more promising approach would be to seek compromises on those issues of greatest contention. For instance, the US might offer to curtail the extra-territorial aspects of its policy in exchange for the Europeans developing a voluntary code of conduct for investors in Cuba. This approach could also include cooperation in areas where agreement between the US and other governments already exists - such as supporting elements of Cuba's emerging civil society.
Potentially even more productive would be a mission focused on the more difficult issues. The special US envoy would try to engage European and hemispheric governments in rethinking the Cuba problem. The idea would be for the US and other governments to make a genuine effort to shape a cooperative strategy and set of reinforcing policies. This approach offers the best opportunity for the US and other governments to advance their common interests in securing - peaceably - some measure of political change in Cuba.
Nothing can be achieved unless the envoy, from the outset, enjoys the respect and trust of all the major actors - including the administration; Congress; the Cuban-American leadership in Miami; and the European, Canadian, and Latin-American governments. It would be even better if the envoy also had some credibility with the government in Havana.
The right candidate is probably someone who has not previously expressed strong views about US policy toward Cuba. The individual should not only have solid anticommunist credentials, but also qualify as a genuine democrat, with a record of opposing dictatorships of both the right and left. Clearly, the envoy must be someone of high integrity and intelligence, and a pragmatist who is not highly partisan or ideological.
The job demands a special talent for listening and forging consensus from the opinions of others rather than for imposing one's own point of view. The same was true in Bosnia.
Finally, the individual will require the ability to work in the spotlight; nothing about the US-Cuba relationship can be kept secret for long.
As anyone in South Florida knows, these are the qualities of a champion at Jai Alai, a game we imported from Cuba. Before a highly partisan crowd betting heavily on the outcome, the Jai Alai player has to grab onto a ball caroming off three walls at incredible speeds and sharp angles, and quickly fire it back. Although they are not easy to find, there are people who can do that.
*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.