WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Why does President Clinton negotiate with Communist regimes as far away as China and North Korea, but refuse to talk to President Fidel Castro, his Cuban neighbor just 90 miles away?
How can Mr. Clinton be so pleased to have Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, lifelong foes, shake hands on the White House lawn, while be so reluctant to make a gesture to his own nemesis, Mr. Castro?
To talk or not to talk? That question bedevils a solution to the crisis over the Cuban boat people. Mr. Castro is demanding wide-ranging discussions that would include a lifting of the 1962 U.S. economic embargo on the Communist island and an end to the U.S. tenancy of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Clinton, like Republican presidents before him, rules out talks, except on immigration, until Mr. Castro introduces enough economic and political reforms to justify a broader dialogue.
The result: stalemate, and an exodus of Cuban refugees. More than 11,000 have been picked up since the weekend, more than 15,000 since the beginning of the month.
The administration's refusal to talk to the Cuban leadership reflects its determination to isolate Mr. Castro until he makes major political and economic changes. The U.S. pursuit of that policy contrasts with the positions of its Western Hemisphere neighbors, who maintain relations with Cuba.
Although the United States has had diplomatic relations with other Communist countries for decades, Mr. Clinton said the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been different for 30 years.
"I think Mr. Castro knows the condition for changing that policy," Mr. Clinton said yesterday.
"There can be no premise for a higher dialogue until there is evidence that Castro is willing to contemplate the types of reforms needed to change the regime," said a senior State Department official.
High-level talks, according to the official, who asked not to be named, would be seized on by Mr. Castro as reflecting a new status in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, a precursor to normalized relations, and could be viewed as implicit acceptance of U.S. responsibility for Cuba's economic collapse.
"The United States is not part of the problem," Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the administration's point man on the Cuban crisis, told reporters at the White House yesterday. "This is not a situation which has been brought on by American actions."
Asked why the administration refuses to talk with the Cubans even though there have been U.S. contacts with other Communist leaders for decades, Mr. Tarnoff replied: "For the simple reason that we do not want to divert Castro's attention from the real issue, and the real issue is internal reform, a dialogue between Castro and the Cuban people."
He said Mr. Castro was trying the lay blame for the crisis on the United States. "We simply reject that premise, and that is the reason that we do not believe it is useful to have a dialogue with Castro," he said.
Reminded that he had been part of a delegation sent to Cuba in the 1970s to seek the release of political prisoners, including Americans, through direct talks, Mr. Tarnoff replied: "The circumstance of my going down to Cuba were very different, because I was concerned primarily with the release of Americans who were detained illegally by the Castro regime. Now I think our position is very clear. The dialogue that has to take place is one between Castro and the Cuban people."
Cold War is over, Dodd notes
Pressure for direct U.S.-Cuban talks has mounted since Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut who is on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday on the Senate floor that the Cold War was over and that Cuba no longer represented a strategic threat to the United States.
Noting that the United States had helped spur change in Eastern Europe by finding "creative ways to engage in dialogue" with the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other countries, Mr. Dodd said, "It makes more sense to try to deal with somebody under those circumstances than to engage in perpetual isolation and not even explore ways in which we can facilitate change."
A Republican member of the committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, echoed that sentiment yesterday, predicting in a Fox-TV interview that the administration "is going to have to deal with Fidel Castro . . . in the hard-nosed way that we've tried to deal . . . with other people that we don't care for."
But conservatives urged Mr. Clinton to hang tough in his dealings with Mr. Castro.
Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, said on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" that "the world ought to indict and isolate Castro." He warned that entering negotiations with him "would extend his time of tyranny." He added: "We ought to understand that this is probably Fidel's last card, and we should not cave in to this pressure. We ought to, again, isolate him."
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Florida opponent of high-level talks, accused the administration of conducting a .. "half-baked" policy geared to stopping the migration without the "strong initiatives," such as a naval blockade around Cuba, that might influence Cuban policy.
"So far, Castro's winning and calling all the shots," she said on CBS-TV's "This Morning" program.
Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs and an outspoken critic of the Clinton policy, which he perceives to be tailored to appease the Cuban-American community in Florida, said: "The administration is taking an enormous risk in not negotiating -- not only risking the national interest but also its own partisan purposes. The administration almost cannot come out of this looking good.
"One of the things Clinton has to realize is that it would be politically far cheaper for him to talk to Castro than to face the daily television shots of [the U.S. Navy's] Seabees desperately attempting to build facilities to keep ahead of the migration flow."
But according to Antonio Gorge, a Cuban-American professor of economics and international relations at Florida International University, the administration's pursuit of an approach toward Cuba that is different from its policies toward North Korea or China is well-founded.
"National states have different kinds of national interests, and they vary with geographical location," he said.
A 'manufactured' crisis
"This is a crisis manufactured by Castro for the express purpose of forcing the United States to negotiate an end to the trade embargo.
"He wants to change the foreign policy by putting pressure on the U.S. If there is any merit in their current policy, why should the U.S. change it under Castro's pressure?" Mr. Gorge said.
"If you let Castro impose on the U.S. and dictate its migration and foreign policy, everyone will do it."
There is nothing new in the positions of the two sides. The last effort to open a broad dialogue was initiated by President Jimmy Carter. But it petered out halfway through his term with the arrival of Soviet reinforcements in Cuba, and as it became clear he would likely face a right-wing challenge and charges of being "soft" on communism from a presidential challenger, Ronald Reagan.
'A lack of creativity'
Since then, the only regular talks have been under an agreement to review migration policies, reached in 1984 in the wake of the 1980 Mariel boat lift, which brought 125,000 Cuban refugees to Florida in five months.
Those talks are slated to be held twice yearly.
The Clinton administration has proposed a new round, but the Cubans have responded only with their demand for broad negotiations.
"There is a lack of creativity in how to deal with the situation," said David Collis, deputy director of Georgetown University's Cuba Project.
L "It could be an opportunity for the U.S. to set the agenda."