Talks With Cuba: Biting the Bullet : U.S. rightly embraces an idea it has loathed

Talking with Fidel Castro is never easy for Washington’s policy-makers--but that doesn’t mean it should never be done. In the case at hand, the prospect of talks is downright encouraging: Secretary of State Warren Christopher has announced that a dialogue with Havana will begin Wednesday in an effort to curb the latest influx of Cuban refugees to this country.

The reasons for Washington’s traditional reluctance to engage Havana diplomatically have been valid but increasingly are out of date. There is the fear that Castro will use any U.S. concession to score propaganda points against his No. 1 enemy. And every time an opening to Havana is pursued, it is decried by the most fervent anti-Castro exiles in this country’s influential Cuban American community.

However, in this case the risks are worth running. There are specific issues on the table. A dialogue does not mean that Washington would or should be drawn into new areas of diplomatic engagement with a dictator whom the United States prefers to keep isolated--however arguable an isolationist policy might be.

Washington has already said it will increase the number of immigration visas issued through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which functions as an embassy in Cuba. More visas for legal immigration, even if a wait is entailed, could ease the anxiety that is prompting many Cubans to try to enter this country illegally. In exchange, Washington could demand that the Cuban government not harass anyone who seeks such a visa.


The United States could also agree to Castro’s demand that hijackers of Cuban vessels be arrested on arriving in the United States and be charged with a crime. In exchange, Washington should insist on a greater Cuban effort to stop refugees from taking to the sea.

Finally, the Clinton Administration could win leverage with Castro by offering to let Cuban Americans resume sending money to relatives in Cuba. The dollars flowing to the island in the last two years as a result of relaxed currency controls no doubt have somewhat helped Castro’s failing economy; but more important is the fact that the money helps relieve the suffering of many families by allowing them to buy food and other scarce goods using dollars.

It can be argued that the fundamental premise of U.S. policy toward Cuba is painfully anachronistic now that the Cold War is over. If we can negotiate with North Korea about its nuclear program and trade with Communist China, why not talk to Castro? That is certainly a change worth considering, one this newspaper has urged in the past. But before Washington can even consider it, Castro must cooperate in ending the immediate crisis--a chaotic and dangerous human exodus.