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U.S. Signals Cuba It’s Ready to Deal : Refugees: Secretary of state says Administration may ease restrictions on legal immigration. Statement appears meant to encourage progress at upcoming talks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Sunday sent a signal outlining a possible U.S. deal with Cuba on 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 emigration 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-TV program “Face the Nation.” “We’re quite prepared to consider lawful migration, perhaps enhanced lawful migration, if they’re prepared to stop the unlawful migration.”

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Until now, U.S. immigration policy has granted legal entry 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 hijackings. 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 immigration problem, and the negotiations are expected to begin in New York on Wednesday.

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Christopher’s statement appears 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 emigration, 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.

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An order signed by Castro said the measure was taken to protect the lives of Cubans who are too young to have “the capacity to decide for themselves,” the Reuters news agency reported from Havana.

An unknown number of refugees, apparently including some children, have died after setting to sea on flimsy homemade rafts made of inner tubes, Styrofoam and wood.

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

By evening, only 61 Cubans had been plucked from the 90-mile stretch of sea separating Cuba and Florida, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.

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Castro’s order said the Cuban coast guard will patrol territorial waters within 12 miles of the island’s coast to “provide help if necessary” for people aboard rafts and boats but will not arrest them.

The Clinton Administration welcomed the action as an apparent step in the right direction. “If the Cuban government is taking steps to discourage illegal migration that puts Cuban citizens at great risk, then we would welcome that development as consistent with our view,” State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said.

The emigration crisis has thus 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.

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Under a 1984 accord, the United States agreed to admit 27,845 Cubans each year as legal immigrants, but in practice the U.S. government has admitted only a small fraction of that number.

Christopher’s statement suggested the basis of a deal that could serve the interests of both sides: The Administration could broaden the categories of Cubans allowed to enter, thus increasing the number. In return, Castro could order his police and coast guard to resume discouraging people from leaving illegally on boats and rafts.

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 he refused to offer any specifics.

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But Christopher repeated the Administration’s insistence that this week’s talks on immigration 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.

The secretary of state said firmly that the Administration is not considering a naval blockade of the island, despite calls for one from conservative Republicans and Cuban Americans.

“We do not favor a blockade at the present time. It is not contemplated. We seek peaceful change,” Christopher said. “We think a naval blockade can lead toward confrontation. It’s an act of war.” Last week, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said such a blockade might be an option.

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But this week, most criticism of the Administration has come from the opposite direction--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.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed.

“We’ve had a lot of experience in recent years about how you move a communist country to freedom--and the lesson of that is to broaden and to intensify contacts,” Hamilton said. “Let’s open up Cuba just as much as we can.” Both legislators were interviewed Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”

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Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a leading conservative, and liberal Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) have made similar statements.

But Clinton promised Cuban American leaders in Florida, a battleground state in the 1992 presidential election, that he would not open talks with Castro, and he has kept that promise.

Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said the reasons for refusing to deal with Castro had not changed. “This man is a thug. He’s a killer. He’s a communist.”


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