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Cuba, U.S. Still Far Apart on Refugee Crisis Solution

By Stanley Meisler
Los Angeles Times

Cuban and American diplomats, while laying aside any obvious hostile feelings, remained far apart after the opening round of talks Thursday aimed at working out an agreement for halting the relentless waves of Cuban rafters seeking an American haven.

"We still have a long way to go before having an agreement and a long way to go to solving the problem," said Ricardo Alarcon, head of the Cuban delegation. Neither side had expected to reach agreement on the first day.

State Department spokesman David Johnson described the talks, which continue Friday, as "serious, professional and businesslike." This diplomatic jargon, another U.S. official explained, meant that the talks moved with efficiency and "without hostility."

Alarcon described the opening session as "businesslike and proper."

Judging by the few comments made to the press and television, the two sides were not far apart on the immediate issue of what needs to be done right now about the thousands of Cubans fleeing their homeland.

But the Americans still refused to accept the Cuban contention that the root of the problem lay with the U.S. embargo on trade and that no long-term solution was possible without dealing with it.

"Everytime I speak, I can assure you, I bring up the embargo," Alarcon, former Cuba foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, told the Cable News Network. "...By making life more difficult for people down there, you are encouraging people to leave."

But Michael Skol, the deputy assistant secretary of state who leads the American negotiators, told reporters as he entered the headquarters of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations that he intended to talk only about ending the "chaotic, dangerous, unsafe migration north from Cuba on the waters."

Asked about delving into wider issues, Skol held up a large binder and said, "I've got a briefing book here, and it is on migration issues only. There's nothing here about embargo, about economics, or about anything else. Tabs A through M: all migration."

The two sides had similar views on migration itself. Skol said it was in the interests of both countries "to establish a firm system of legal, safe, orderly migration from Cuba." Clinton administration officials have said they are prepared to offer a guarantee of visas for well over 20,000 Cubans a year if Fidel Castro's government stops the exodus of rafters.

Alarcon said the United States should grant more visas to Cubans so they can leave Cuba by plane instead of by makeshfit rafts. Under an agreement reached between Castro and the Reagan administration 10 years ago, the United States has the authority to issue 27,845 visas a year to Cubans. But, despite long waiting lists, the U.S. consular office in Havana actually grants only 3,000 visas a year.

The sudden exodus has embarrassed President Clinton, who, in an attempt to stop the tide, revoked the 35-year-old policy of admitting all Cubans legally as special political refugees. Coast Guardsmen are instead rounding them up at sea and detaining them in camps at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba.

Although U.S. officials insist that the detained Cubans, like the Haitians in Guantanamo camps, will not be allowed to enter the United States, the Cuban rafters keep coming. More than 2,000 were picked up by the Coast Guard Wednesday, and, by Thursday, according to the Pentagon, there were 15,471 Cubans and 14,148 Haitians in Guantanamo.

State Department spokesman Johnson said the talks at the U.S. mission, which included a working lunch, lasted for six hours, and would move a few blocks away Friday to the offices of the Cuban mission to the United Nations. According to Johnson, the two sides used most of the time for detailed presentations of their positions.

He said that Deputy Assistant Secretary Skol discussed legal immigration, police enforcement of illegal immigration, and the return to Cuba of certain undesirable immigrants. During the large exodus from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980, Castro loosed a number of prison and mental hospital inmates, and the United States has long demanded that he take them back.

There have been hints that some inmates may be among the rafters as well. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Dennis Box said the U.S. government has evidence that some prison inmates were among the Cuban refugees taken to Guantanamo although the number is far less, so far, than it was during the Mariel boatlift.