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Cuba, U.S. to Hold Talks on Refugees, Migration

By Daniel Williams
The Washington Post

Cuba and the United States agreed Saturday to hold talks on boat people and other migration issues this week, State Department officials said, a pledge Washington hopes will lead to the end the Cuban refugee crisis.

U.S. officials insisted that the topics in talks will be limited to migration and the level of representation normal for this kind of meeting, a deputy assistant secretary of State. President Clinton has rejected calls by Cuba's Fidel Castro for talks on ending the U.S. trade embargo with his country, a long time goal of the aging Communist leader.

In Havana, Foreign Ministry spokesman Miguel Alfonso called the talks a "point of coincidence" in U.S. and Cuban foreign policies but said relations were otherwise "particularly tense," Reuter reported. Alfonso criticized the new punitive U.S. measures against Cuba that took effect Friday.

Alfonso said that although Havana does not believe that talks on migration issues alone will solve the overall problem, it does not object to discussions on this point, Reuter reported.

The migration talks will be held in New York, a State Department official said, but the date awaits a Cuban decision on travel arrangements. A tentative Wednesday date was scuttled after members of Clinton's vacation entourage at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., leaked the talks to the media, angering Cuban officials.

"The talks will deal with issues related to the promotion of legal, orderly and safe migration," said State Department spokesman Michael McCurry.

Castro recently ended police vigilance along Cuba's north coast and stimulated a surge of Cubans taking to boats and rafts to head for Florida. He said that lenient U.S. rules for granting political asylum to Cubans encouraged Cubans to flee. Many also sought to escape an economic depression deepened by the U.S. trade ban. Even before the recent there had been a steady flow of Cuban raft people.

The surge of raft people had raised fears that refugees would overwhelm facilities in Florida. In response Clinton canceled rules that made it easy for Cubans who successfully fled the island to gain political asylum. He mobilized U.S. ships to intercept the refugees and ferry them to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an indefinite stay.

But while altering refugee policy, Clinton has been reluctant to change the Cold War era policy of refusing trade and normal relations with Cuba. To do so, aides say, would only prop up a decaying dictatorship, bring cries that Clinton caved in under Castro's pressure and that he betrayed the politically active Cuban exile community in Miami, whose support he solicited for the new refugee policy.

Saturday, administraton officials were busily contacting exile leaders to assure them the migration talks, will not expand into other areas. Some administration officials talk quietly of trying to feel out Castro by listing steps he could take in human rights issues and democracy to make political talks possible.

Migration talks have been held periodically since 1984. The last round-in December 1993-deadlocked over Washington's demand that Castro must take back some Mariel-era refugees who commite crimes. The new round will focus on the latest crisis, in which roughly 17,000 refugees have been rescued by U.S. sailors this month.

The numbers of refugees picked up at sea diminished substantially in recent days, mainly, officials believe, because of squalls in the Florida Straits. About 112 were picked up at sea Saturday, the Coast Guard said. Many refugees who took to sea before the storms may have drowned, U.S. officials and Havana-based diplomats said.

U.S. officials also hope that news of internment at Guantanamo may discourage refugees. They pointed out that Saturday, more than 200 of the inmates at Guantanamo had asked to be sent back to Cuba. U.S. officials were trying to arrange their repatriation.

A Western diplomat based in Cuba said that Cuban officials want the United States to increase drastically the number of immigrants it accepts through processing at the American Interests Section in Havana. They want the maximum number of visasa available yearly, about 28,000, to be granted. Immigrant visas are more palatable to Castro because they do not imply the applicant is fleeing repression.