UNITED NATIONS -- U.S. and Cuban negotiators met for six hours yesterday in their first face-to-face talks in nine months amid indications that Cuba was seriously weighing Clinton administration proposals to resolve the crisis created by thousands of refugees setting sail for Florida.
The talks, which administration officials said went well, were held as another 1,484 Cubans were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in the waters off Cuba as of 6 p.m., bringing the total to more than 20,000 since early August. The officials said there was even some hope that the two sides might reach some kind of an agreement by the weekend.
Last night, the Cuban and U.S. diplomats adjourned their session, which was held at the 10-story U.S. mission to the United Nations, across the street from U.N. headquarters. The talks will resume today at the Cuban mission.
But tempering the signs of possible progress, the public statements by U.S. and Cuban diplomats suggested that some major differences remained.
According to U.S. and Cuban officials, the Cubans sought to use the talks to call for elimination of Havana's biggest grievance with the United States, the trade embargo, while the Americans insisted on talking about immigration matters only.
President Clinton has repeatedly said that he would not discuss the embargo with President Fidel Castro and would do nothing to lift it until the man who has led Cuba since 1959 takes steps to restore democracy.
The main subject of the talks was an administration proposal that the United States grant entry rights to more than 20,000 Cubans each year in return for Cuba's calling a halt to the chaotic exodus.
The administration's strategy has been to offer Mr. Castro something he has long clamored for: a firm commitment from Washington to grant the entry rights. This would give the Cuban leader a safety valve that would help him get rid of thousands of discontented Cubans.
David Johnson, the spokesman for the U.S. delegation, called yesterday's talks "serious" and "businesslike." He said that the United States made an offer that "can meet what we believe is a mutual objective: channeling the desire to immigrate into a legal, safe, orderly, predictable and dependable process, and stemming the uncontrolled outflow."
Since Mr. Castro said early last month that his coast guard would no longer prevent Cubans from leaving, more than 20,000 people have fled the island in rafts, boats and inner tubes.
The latest wave of boat people came after 2,159 Cubans were picked up at sea Wednesday -- one of the highest totals since the outflow began four weeks ago in the worst crisis with Cuba since the the 1980 Mariel boatlift of 125,000 Cubans.
Ricardo Alarcon, the former Cuban foreign minister who is heading Cuba's delegation, said the only serious way to resolve the exodus of Cubans was to address the 30-year-old trade embargo, which Havana insists is fueling the exodus.
"All they have to do is change that basic issue," Mr. Alarcon said on Cuba's government radio yesterday.
Mr. Alarcon, who is the president of Cuba's National Assembly, accused the American side of seeking to sour the atmosphere by suggesting that the Castro government had released about 100 prisoners last month and encouraged them to join the exodus of boat people.
"That information is preposterous," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "It's a way to create a very negative atmosphere, not only for the talks but also for those Cubans that are seeking a new life in the States."
The Clinton administration sought the negotiations because its initial effort to halt the flood of boat people failed. On Aug. 19, Mr. Clinton ended the 3-decade-old policy of admitting all Cubans, confident that Cubans would prefer to stay at home rather than be detained indefinitely at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. But since then, more than 15,000 Cubans have set out by sea, slowed only by stormy weather and daunting seas last weekend.
Another aim of the administration's negotiators is to persuade Cuba to take back more than 1,500 prisoners who arrived in the 1980 boatlift.
Under the administration proposal, the United States would make a firm commitment to grant entry rights to at least 20,000 Cubans a year -- and perhaps as many as 27,845, the ceiling for the number of visas that can be granted to citizens of any one country in a year.
Mr. Castro has insisted that the Reagan administration signed an agreement commiting Washington to accept at least 20,000 Cubans a year, but several administrations have asserted that the agreement contains no such commitment.
Over the past 12 months, about 2,700 Cubans have been granted visas.
Cuban-American leaders and administration officials say that number was far below the ceiling of 27,845 because only a limited number of Cubans meet the main criterion for obtaining a visa, being an immediate family member of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident alien.