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Cuba Sees Politics Behind Expulsion

Times Staff Writer

The Cuban government accused the Bush administration Thursday of election-year pandering to strident Cuban exiles for its “unjustified” expulsion of a Washington-based diplomat and suspension of immigration talks that were the last high-level contact between the countries.

Havana’s reaction drew harsh words from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who repeated claims circulated anonymously by U.S. officials this week that Cuban President Fidel Castro had been fomenting anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America.

The verbal clashes and canceled negotiations appeared to signal that U.S.-Cuban relations have sunk to their lowest point since 1996, when the Cuban air force shot down two planes flown into its airspace by Miami-based exiles.

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The unusually direct and personal response to the expulsion of Roberto Socorro Garcia, a third secretary at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, was made by the Foreign Ministry’s head of North American affairs, Rafael Dausa, in Thursday’s issue of the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma.

Dausa condemned “leaked” comments by an unidentified State Department official to Washington media that Socorro was expelled for “activities related to narcotics trafficking.”

Socorro was expelled Dec. 19, but the State Department did not disclose the action until Saturday. It gave the reason as “activities incompatible with his status,” a phrase usually meant to imply spying.

“Such accusations against our official are nothing other than a coarse lie and a gross manipulation of reality,” Dausa said, adding that the information issued by the State Department was part of a fresh campaign by Washington “to placate the Miami mafia.”

Miami is home to the largest Cuban exile community in the United States, and its politically active lobbies were instrumental in securing Florida’s electoral votes for President Bush in the close and controversial 2000 election.

In response to criticism from the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, Bush vowed in November to step up the pressure on Castro to hasten an end to his reign in the island nation.

At a news conference in Washington, Powell defended the administration’s recent remarks about Cuba, saying the Castro regime persists in trying to destabilize Latin America.

“Fortunately, [such efforts] turned out to be massive failures for the most part,” Powell said, adding that 34 of the 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere are democracies.

“No juntas running anything -- except for one place, and that’s Cuba, which continues to oppress its people, which continues to deny its people a better life and, given the opportunity, will stir things up. That has been his history. That has been his tradition for all these many years,” Powell said of Castro.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry disclosed late Tuesday that Washington had informed it that U.S. officials would not be traveling to Havana for immigration talks planned for Thursday, on the grounds that the administration saw little hope of resolving five long-standing issues.

The talks, held alternately in Havana and New York in January and July of each year, are intended to resolve the details of immigration accords signed in 1994 after a chaotic inundation of raft-borne migrants brought 37,000 Cubans to U.S. shores that summer.

Under the agreement, the United States is obliged to issue at least 20,000 visas annually to Cubans from a list of more than 500,000 applicants compiled five years ago.

“We have told Cuba that we’re ready to go to talks when they’re ready to discuss the serious issues that need to be discussed,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the Cubans have continued to refuse to discuss the issues that we’ve identified,” he said.

Those stumbling blocks, according to Boucher, are Havana’s failure to issue exit visas to all qualified migrants; refusal to allow a fresh registration period for potential migrants; disregard of U.S. requests for access to a deeper-water port for repatriating Cubans intercepted at sea; refusal to allow U.S. diplomats to visit returned migrants; and refusal to take back some Cuban nationals denied entry to the U.S., usually on grounds of criminal activity.

A Foreign Ministry statement Monday accused the State Department of employing “imperial language” to convey that further negotiations are possible only if Cuba is “willing to make all necessary unilateral concessions and accept all demands and whims from the U.S. authorities.”

The statement called the cancellation of the talks the “grossest political blackmail” and, as with the expulsion, said it was “undoubtedly a tribute paid by the Bush administration in light of the pressures exerted by the Miami-based terrorist mafia,” Havana’s term for this city’s anti-Castro exiles.

Cuban officials complained last year that Washington had deliberately slowed the visa process, issuing only 10% of the quota in the first 10 months of the fiscal year before finally complying by the end of 2003. The head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, told The Times in July that stricter security measures were the cause of the delays, not political aims to destabilize Cuba by blocking the departure of citizens who are disenchanted with Castro’s regime.

Dausa, in his statement, accused Washington of “totally ignoring the will of the North American population that every day more obviously favors a change in Cuban policy and a normalization in relations between the two countries, including a growing number of Cuban residents” in the United States.

The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Castro’s revolution ousted the right-wing regime of Fulgencio Batista. Since then, Washington has maintained an economic embargo against its tiny Caribbean neighbor aimed at undermining Castro’s authority. However, with Castro still firmly in control more than four decades later, despite widespread poverty and relative political isolation, many U.S. trade, cultural and education groups have been lobbying for an end to the embargo in favor of a policy of engagement.


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