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Clinton Refuses Talks with Castro; Weather Turns Bad

By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times

President Clinton rejected Fidel Castro's demand for high-level negotiations Thursday, brushing aside pleas from some of his political allies to begin talking to the Cuban leadership about ways to contain the growing refugee crisis in the Florida Straits.

Asked during a late afternoon session with reporters in the White House Rose Garden why the administration negotiates with North Korea while refusing to talk to Castro, Clinton said, "We have a different policy of 30 years' standing" which precludes direct contacts with Cuba.

The weather in Cuba and through the straits turned nasty Thursday and is expected to become much more hazardous this weekend for the Cubans' make-shift rafts. While the rain and high winds clearly discouraged refugees from beginning the difficult voyage, the rough conditions almost certainly will result in the deaths of some rafters already at sea.

News agency reports from Havana said the beach at nearby Cojimar, the departure point for many of the thousands of refugees in the past week, was empty of rafters for the first time in days. Nevertheless, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships continued to pick up Cubans who had departed earlier.

Coast Guard officials said the weather was deteriorating rapidly in the straits Thursday night, with squalls of between 20 knots and 40 knots and waves of between six and 10 feet - rough enough to swamp all of the rafts and many of the small boats being used by the refugees.

Full-fledged storms are expected over the weekend.

"This is not a tropical storm," said forecaster Lixion Avila of the National Hurricane Center. "But if you have rafters in this situation, it is very dangerous."

Clinton said he is ready to resume low-level talks on Cuban refugee status and immigration, which have been going on occasionally since 1984. But he ruled out discussing other subjects and said he will not upgrade the negotiations by assigning senior officials to conduct them.

He said Castro "needs to be in consultation with his own folks. ... The people of Cuba want democracy and free markets."

Earlier in the day, Attorney General Janet Reno and Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff said the administration is determined not to give Castro the Washington-Havana dialogue he has long sought.

Both officials said Castro deliberately caused the crisis by throwing open the island's long-barred exit in an effort to force a dialogue with the United States and it is up to him to end it. But that response ignores the immediate effect of the 3,000-a-day influx of refugees on the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and the impact of the well-watched humanitarian disaster on the American public.

In a 2{-hour late-night speech Wednesday, Castro called for negotiations not only over immigration and refugees issues but also the longstanding U.S. economic embargo and Washington's control of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base under a lease that was signed long before Castro seized power.

Clinton's refusal to talk to Castro continues a policy that was followed by eight previous presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Republicans generally praised the president for holding firm against negotiations even though many of them were sharply critical of other elements of his policy. But a growing number of Democrats on Capitol Hill, joined by some outside experts, called for a new dialogue with Cuba.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that "some open negotiations with Castro makes sense. It's anachronistic not to do it."

President-elect Ernesto Zadillo of Mexico also called for talks between Washington and Havana. He offered to mediate.