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Old rivals still limit U.S. ties to Cuba; Clinton's new warmth toward Cuba avoids angering exiles, Castro


WASHINGTON -- The administration's long-range hopes of paving the way for a peaceful post-Communist transition in Cuba will likely be hemmed in by two opposing forces: Fidel Castro and Congress.

President Clinton formally announced a series of measures yesterday to improve people-to-people ties by making travel easier, boosting academic contacts and allowing Americans to send more money and food to the Caribbean nation.

The announcement came a day after the administration opened the way for baseball diplomacy with Cuba.

But a powerful anti-Castro lobby on Capitol Hill continues to block both an easing of the 36-year-old economic embargo against the island and an improvement in official ties between Washington and Havana.

And while the Castro regime is willing to tolerate a measure of freedom for the Roman Catholic Church, nongovernmental organizations and even small private enterprises, it won't permit anything that threatens its survival.

"The balance of political power is still on the side of the traditional actors on Cuban policy: the hard-line elements of the Cuban exile community and the Cuban government," said Richard Nuccio, a former Clinton adviser on Cuba policy who is now a visiting scholar at Harvard.

But the Clinton administration is determined to exploit openings both in Cuba and on Capitol Hill that it hopes will pave the way for a peaceful transition to the post-Castro era.

"We are just going to pursue this relentlessly," a senior U.S. official said Monday.

Despite periodic crackdowns in Cuba, the administration believes last year's visit by Pope John Paul II provided opportunities for increased people-to-people contacts and private organizations.

Seizing on a shared passion for baseball, the administration intends to allow the Orioles to arrange exhibition games in Cuba and Baltimore -- provided the Castro regime agrees to turn the profits over to a charity, such as Catholic Relief Services.

Sports have traditionally served to improve diplomatic relations, starting with the pingpong diplomacy between the United States and China in the 1970s and more recent wrestling matches between Americans and Iranians.

Its economy hobbled by decades of communism and the U.S. embargo, Cuba is eager for American dollars and has allowed some private enterprise to develop outside strict government control, including small family-run restaurants and agricultural cooperatives.

In response, Washington is loosening its rules to allow Americans to send money to anyone in Cuba, not just relatives, so long as the recipient is not a member of the regime.

The United States also is planning to allow charter flights from several American cities to new Cuban destinations, not just Havana. Washington also plans to allow direct mail and increased exchanges among academics, scientists, athletes and others.

"This is the single most substantial change in U.S. policy for a decade," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, who said that taken together the administration's initiatives are "significant."

And the trend won't stop with this week's announced steps. Officials say the policy will be reviewed continually and new measures may come in a matter of months.

One impetus will be a report due soon from the Council on Foreign Relations which recommends allowing Americans to send up to $10,000 a year in remittances -- perhaps enough to start a small business -- and to claim Cuban relatives as dependents. Currently the limit is $1,200 a year. The report also urges unlimited family visits.

A more moderate Cuban-American population has begun to make its voice heard since the death last year of Jorge Mas Canosa, the most influential leader of the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Florida.

And cracks have appeared in the powerful anti-Castro coalition in Congress.

Particularly telling was the split reaction of Republicans. While south Florida's Cuban-American representatives criticized most aspects of the administration plan, the office of powerful Castro foe Jesse Helms offered general support.

But the price of keeping congressional support was not going too far in the direction of a thaw.

Marc Theissen, Helms' spokesman, praised the administration for refusing to side with Senate moderates and pick a bipartisan commission to review lifting the embargo.

"What he did was a reaffirmation of U.S. policy, a reaffirmation of the embargo and a reaffirmation that U.S. policy will remain the isolation of the Castro regime," said Theissen.

"Once the embargo is off the table, there is an opportunity to force a bipartisan consensus to build a civil society and promote human rights."

Helms, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Foreign Relation Committee, wants the administration to go further. He has sponsored a measure to provide $100 million in humanitarian assistance.

"Helms does not think he is risking support [from Cuban-Americans] by taking views somewhat to the left of Ileana and Lincoln," said Nuccio, referring to two of Florida's most vociferous anti-Castro representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Republicans.

But there is no escaping Castro's large measure of control over the thaw in relations. Cuban beneficiaries of American aid risk being tarred as enemies of the state, says Geoff Thale, a Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

In the past, Castro has reacted violently when he sensed that he was losing control over the relationship, some experts say.

Nuccio believes the shooting down of the two private airplanes piloted by Cuban Americans over the Florida straits in February 1996 marked a Castro effort to set back an earlier U.S. initiative. Indeed, it stopped the momentum of improved ties in its tracks.

"He created a situation that was much more manageable for him," Nuccio said. Castro could take similar action again and put American hard-liners "in the driver's seat."

The only way to ensure that Castro will cooperate in improving people-to-people ties is for the United States to cooperate with the Cuban government, Nuccio says -- for instance, by increasing anti-narcotics or environmental cooperation.

This, however, would undercut a key purpose of trying to improve the people-to-people ties, namely to weaken the Cuban regime from inside Cuba but outside the government. As a result, it would likely hit a brick wall on Capitol Hill.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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