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Trying to Keep Cubans Home, Negotiators Walk Fine Line

By Daniel Williams
The Washington Post

U.S. negotiators go into talks with Cuban officials Thursday trying to walk a fine line: They want to persuade Cuba's Fidel Castro to stop Cuban rafters from taking to the sea, but nicely.

In the past, Castro arrested and fined potential boat people under laws prohibiting "illegal departures," a practice criticized by human-rights groups. He recently stopped enforcing the law, stimulating a wave of refugees.

To persuade Castro, Washington is willing to concede numerous points on immigration long sought by his regime. The concessions would continue to give him a safety valve of exits for disgruntled citizens, without prolonging escapes by sea, a spectacle embarrassing to the Havana government.

Thursday's talks in New York begin as the number of Cuban refugees picked up in the Straits of Florida by U.S. ships remained high for a second day. The Coast Guard said 1,419 had been picked up Wednesday by 2 p.m., after a total of 1,582 were intercepted on Tuesday. That was up sharply from the preceding three days, when the number was depressed after storms swept the straits.

Officially, Cuba is looking to widen the talks to cover the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, but U.S. officials said the American negotiators will not take this up in New York.

Clinton is willing to expand greatly the number of Cubans who are able to immigrate legally through the American Interests Section in Havana. Castro has long wanted expansion of immigration as recognition that economics, not politics, is driving Cubans away.

One way to expand immigration is to widen the criteria for determining which Cubans have sufficiently close relatives in the United States to be eligible to move here. Looser rules for letting in refugees can also be used, but these will not be subject to negotiation, a U.S. official said.