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Christopher Indicates U.S. May Strike Deal on Cuba

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Sunday sent a signal outlining a possible U.S. deal with Cuba over migration, saying the Clinton administration may allow more Cubans to enter the United States through legal immigration if Fidel Castro agrees to stop his citizens from going to sea in rafts.

In a television interview, Christopher suggested that the administration is willing to change current policies, broaden the categories of Cubans who can immigrate legally and speed up the processing of their applications if that will help end the crisis.

His statement was the clearest public signal yet of the administration's willingness to meet one of Castro's longstanding demands: easier legal migration for discontented Cubans.

"We're quite prepared to talk to them about legal, lawful migration to the United States, how to make that more effective, what categories of people can come in to the United States," Christopher said on the CBS' "Face the Nation." "We're quite prepared to consider lawful migration, perhaps enhanced lawful migration, if they're prepared to stop the unlawful migration."

Until now, U.S. immigration policy has granted legal entry to the United States only to about 3,000 Cubans a year in three categories: those with close relatives already in the country, those with needed skills, or those with a documented history of political persecution.

At the same time, however, U.S. law allows Cubans who enter the country illegally to stay and apply for refugee status.

Castro has long complained that the effect of that policy was to encourage illegal emigration, including boat and aircraft hijacks. Earlier this month, when Cubans rioted over economic problems and emigration restrictions, Castro announced that his government would no longer stop citizens from going to sea - producing an exodus of more than 17,000 Cubans in two weeks.

Last week, the Clinton administration proposed formal talks with Cuba on the migration problem, and the negotiations are expected to begin in New York on Wednesday.

Christopher's statement appeared aimed at encouraging the Cubans to come to the talks ready to make a deal that could help end the crisis.

"We want them to know that we are serious about having substantive, productive talks," a Christopher aide said.

Although Castro has used the crisis to renew his demand for a lifting of the three-decade-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, experts say they believe that his real objectives are far more modest: easier legal migration, U.S. prosecution of Cubans who make it to Florida in stolen aircraft or boats, and restoration of permission for Cuban-Americans to send money to relatives on the island.

On Sunday, Castro took a small step toward reimposing control over seaborne emigration from Cuba, announcing that he has ordered his coast guard to stop people from taking children to sea on unsafe boats and rafts.

Officials said the number of rafters found in the Florida Straits decreased further Sunday, apparently because of scattered rain showers and choppy seas.

By late afternoon, only 30 Cubans had been plucked from the 90-mile stretch of sea separating Cuba and Florida, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.

The migration crisis has placed Castro and Clinton in paradoxical positions: Castro is now actively assisting Cubans who want to flee to the United States, and Clinton is implicitly asking him to use his repressive police forces to stop them.

Castro wants to allow discontented Cubans to leave as a "safety valve" that removes potentially dangerous dissidents from the island - but he does not relish the damaging image of his countrymen fleeing desperately on rafts.

Under a 1984 agreement, the United States agreed to admit up to 20,000 Cubans each year as legal immigrants, but in practice the U.S. government has only admitted a small fraction of that number.

Christopher also held out a slim signal of hope to Castro on a broader issue: the Cuban leader's desire for wide-ranging talks with the United States toward normalizing political relations and lifting the trade embargo.

"If he moves toward democracy in a tangible, significant way, we'll respond in a carefully calibrated way," Christopher said, but refused to offer any specifics.

But he repeated the administration's insistence that this week's talks on migration will not be allowed to spill over into broader issues.

"On other subjects, we really don't have very much to say to Castro. He knows what he needs to do," Christopher said.

This week, most criticism of the administration has come from both Republicans and Democrats who argue that Clinton is making a mistake when he rules out broader political negotiations with Castro.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., a leading Republican foreign policy spokesman, said Clinton should offer to gradually lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in exchange for the release of political prisoners and other moves toward democracy.