WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government's hopes of bringing Robert L. Vesco to trial in the United States have been dampened by Cuban President Fidel Castro's remark that it would be "immoral" to extradite the longtime fugitive financier.
Instead, Mr. Castro said at a private dinner Sunday night with reporters and editors from Cable News Network, his government will investigate the case of Mr. Vesco. The financier was arrested in Havana this month ostensibly on suspicion of being a foreign agent.
If the case warrants, Mr. Vesco will be tried in Cuba, Mr. Castro told CNN, which reported on his comments yesterday.
The Clinton administration, which has voiced a strong desire to extradite Mr. Vesco, reacted cautiously to the CNN account yesterday.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the administration is still awaiting official word of President Castro's position.
"We've certainly expressed to the Cuban government over the last two weeks our interest in having Mr. Vesco back in the United States, where he will certainly face numerous charges," Mr. Burns said. "I'm not aware that the government of Cuba has informed us that it will not return Mr. Vesco to the United States."
Cuban officials, speaking anonymously, said President Castro's remarks appeared to eliminate the possibility that Mr. Vesco will be extradited.
"I think, after that declaration, you can rule it out," one Cuban Foreign Ministry official said.
Mr. Vesco, 59, was arrested in Cuba after living a life of luxury there for years. A fugitive from the United States since 1972, he faces charges of looting $224 million from Investment Overseas Service, his Geneva-based mutual fund company.
A federal grand jury in Jacksonville, Fla., later indicted him on various drug-trafficking charges.
Since the drug charges stemmed from Mr. Vesco's alleged activities in Cuba, U.S. officials were astonished when the Castro government privately notified them this month that it had arrested Mr. Vesco and would like any U.S. criminal information to build a case against him.
Administration officials speculated that Mr. Castro's offer was the latest in a series of overtures aimed at luring the United States to the negotiating table, where Havana could press its long-standing demand for Washington to lift its economic embargo.
The Clinton administration vowed that it would not bargain for Mr. Vesco's transfer.
That cool U.S. response may have prompted Mr. Castro to rescind what officials said was an implicit offer to extradite Mr. Vesco, a senior White House official said yesterday.
Despite the apparent setback, U.S. officials speculated that President Castro may yet try to use Mr. Vesco to improve his standing with the United States. By handing Mr. Vesco a long sentence in Cuba, Mr. Castro could still win some points with the United States while shielding his government from adverse publicity that could arise from Mr. Vesco's defense.