U.S., Cuba Agree to Hold Crisis Talks : Caribbean: Meetings planned for N.Y., probably this week. Nations still disagree on scope, as Havana pushes for a bigger agenda. Washington will limit it to migration.
The governments of the United States and Cuba announced Saturday that they have agreed to hold talks in New York on the immigration crisis that has sent thousands of Cuban refugees onto makeshift rafts heading for Florida.
But U.S. and Cuban officials disagreed on what the scope of the talks should be, with Washington insisting they will focus only on bringing immigration under control and Havana saying they should lead to normalizing relations.
The meetings, which will probably be held this week, were requested last Wednesday by the Clinton Administration, and agreed to by Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Friday, U.S. officials said.
“The talks will deal with issues related to the promotion of legal, orderly and safe migration,” said State Department spokesman Michael McCurry. “This will not be a back door into a broader dialogue with Cuba.”
The U.S. team at the talks will be headed by a middle-level official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Skol, aides said. “He will be instructed not to engage on those (broader) issues,” said one senior official.
President Clinton and his aides have been adamant in insisting that they will not agree to Castro’s requests for talks on lifting U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba or establishing normal relations with the communist regime, especially under the pressure of thousands of refugees taking flight.
But a spokesman for Castro’s government said Cuba still wants the broader talks.
At a news conference in Havana reported by the Reuters news agency, Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesman Miguel Alfonso said the two governments had found “a point of coincidence” over the immigration talks, but added that otherwise, relations with the United States are “tense.”
He complained that new U.S. economic measures against Cuba were a “turning of the screw.”
U.S. officials said that when the immigration talks begin, they intend to ask Castro’s government to do more to control the number of refugees setting out to sea.
“We are interested in steps that the Cuban government can take to discourage their citizens from taking steps that put them at great risk,” McCurry said.
But he noted that the Administration will not ask Castro to use his repressive police forces to stop the emigrants.
Instead, he said, U.S. officials will encourage Cuba to continue warning its citizens that under the new refugee policy, Cubans who take to the sea will not be allowed into the United States.
Castro’s government has already been cooperating in getting that message across--to an extent that has surprised some U.S. officials.
Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, printed a notice from the U.S. government last week, explaining that Cubans picked up at sea would not be allowed into the United States and urging would-be refugees to stay home.
And Cuban authorities have made no apparent effort to jam U.S. government radio broadcasts that have been pushing the same message, officials said.
Moreover, one official said, Cuba has already agreed to U.S. requests to take back some refugees who decided to return home after they discovered that they would not be taken to the United States.
Last week, Havana agreed that 226 refugees being held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base could return to Cuba. “There will probably be a growing number in that category,” one U.S. official said.
Administration officials do not want to claim success yet, but they hope their explanations of the new U.S. policy have gotten through to ordinary Cubans and will gradually choke off the supply of boat people--just as a similar policy change did in the case of Haiti last month.
The Coast Guard reported that it had rescued only 130 Cubans on Saturday, a dramatic drop-off. But much of the decline was clearly attributable to bad weather.
“We’ll have to wait to see if it’s more than that,” one said.
Two leading U.S. senators, including a powerful Republican, said Clinton should agree to Castro’s request for broader talks.
“If we’re opening the door to Vietnam and North Korea, what in the world are we doing not talking to this guy?” Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) asked on CNN’s “Newsmaker Saturday.”
“The Administration makes a mistake in saying they are not willing to have some direct discussions with Castro,” agreed Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “He’s a reality.”