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U.S. Proposes Limited Talks With Cuba

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a possible breakthrough toward stemming the flood of Cuban refugees, the Clinton Administration has proposed limited talks with the Cuban government on migration issues and Cuba has “expressed interest” in the move, U.S. officials said Friday.

Although senior Administration officials cautioned that negotiations are far from certain, they said that the two governments are discussing the prospect and could come to a decision in the next few days.

Such discussions would be far more limited than the broad-scale negotiations that Cuban President Fidel Castro has demanded recently as the price for ending the exodus. But some analysts believe that Castro may settle for less if the United States makes concessions.

If the Cubans should agree to the U.S. offer, the limited talks could offer an opportunity for the two sides to end the flight from Cuba and possibly save Washington the cost and trouble of holding the refugees in detention camps at Guantanamo.

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Clinton left Washington on Friday for a vacation on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., apparently without changing his mind on his refusal to engage in the kind of broad talks that Castro says are necessary.

But other officials disclosed that the Administration had offered its invitation for narrower talks. And State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said later that the Cubans “have expressed some interest. We’ll see.”

Speaking at a news conference in La Paz, Bolivia, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said Friday that his government “wouldn’t refuse” a discussion with the United States limited to immigration issues, Reuters reported. “We would be ready to listen,” Robaina said. But he added that the two countries need “serious, deep and long-term conversations,” especially on the U.S. embargo and on the Guantanamo naval base, which the United States has held since the beginning of this century.

The developments came as the strong tide of Cuban refugees continued in the Florida Straits, despite increasingly heavy seas and squalls. The Coast Guard reported that it had picked up 378 Cuban migrants by midafternoon--below the previous pace, but still a substantial number.

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Coast Guard officials said that they expected still more violent weather off Florida’s shores this weekend, with the prospect of 45-knot squalls and 10-foot waves--more than enough to swamp most rafts and small boats.

Also Friday, in line with a policy that Clinton announced last weekend, the Treasury Department unveiled new rules prohibiting Cuban-Americans living in the United States from sending money to their relatives in Cuba--a move designed to squeeze Cuba’s economy.

The regulations also restrict charter flights between Cuba and the United States, allowing transport only of legal immigrants from Cuba, government officials of both countries, journalists and persons who are involved in research projects, humanitarian programs and religious organizations.

Separately, the Coast Guard also reported that it caught a Hialeah, Fla., resident trying to smuggle nine Cuban refugees into South Florida on a 20-foot powerboat. The man was turned over to U.S. Justice Department officials and the Cubans were taken into custody.

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And the Pentagon reported that the first of some 8,000 additional U.S. troops left Friday for Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, where the Pentagon is building detention camps designed to accommodate 60,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees, up from about 17,000 now.

Clinton’s continuing refusal to accept Castro’s overture for broad economic and diplomatic talks apparently has spurred some divisions among top policy-makers over the wisdom of taking such a hard line. Some leading foreign policy advisers favor talking to Castro as he wants.

The narrower talks, which have been going on intermittently since 1984, last occurred in December. Under the accord that governs the talks, it was time for the Administration to invite Cuba to renew them. In the current climate, Cuba was expected to reject the U.S. offer outright.

A panel of Latin American experts headed by former U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson called on both governments Friday to “turn away from confrontation and begin negotiating on the issues that divide them.”

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The group, part of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum for discussion of issues affecting Latin America, also called on the United States to repeal its restrictions on sending money to Cuba, saying that it only hurts ordinary Cubans and isolates them further.

Administration officials also disclosed Friday that the torrent of refugees now being picked up by Coast Guard vessels has been found to include two groups at opposite extremes of Cuban society--the sons of mid-level Cuban officials and convicts who have just been paroled.

There was no immediate explanation for the appearance of either group. U.S. officials said they had seen some evidence that Castro had ordered some convicts to be given special leaves so they could make the trip. Cuba sent dozens of convicts during the Mariel boat lift of 1980.

Clinton’s departure for Martha’s Vineyard in the midst of the Cuban crisis drew questions by critics who recalled Clinton’s own criticism, in 1992, of President George Bush for leaving the White House in the middle of a foreign policy crisis.

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However, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers asserted that Clinton’s departure “doesn’t mean that he won’t be available. . . . He’ll have adequate communication . . . and if he needs to spend time working on these problems, he certainly will.”

The travel and financial restrictions announced by the Treasury Department were essentially in line with the policies that Clinton outlined a week ago. Before Friday’s changes, Cuban-Americans had been permitted to send home up to $1,200 a year in cash or checks.

However, Treasury officials conceded that the impact of the two measures is likely to be smaller than they first predicted, depriving Cuba of only $150 million a year in foreign exchange instead of $500 million, as some officials initially had said.

Moreover, some Cuban-Americans said that they could easily circumvent the limits on charter flights simply by flying to Mexico first and then boarding planes bound for Cuba. Mexico has no restrictions on airline service to Havana.

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