US Policy toward Cuba Shows Signs of Change White House Maintains Embargo but Still Moves to Improve Relations

Article excerpt

THERE are some quiet signs that after 35 years of hostility a fresh United States approach to Cuba has been started. But the Clinton administration publicly vows to maintain the embargo on Cuba despite calls on Christmas Day in Havana by the Rev. Jesse Jackson for an end to the "suffering" it causes.

"We will continue our diplomatic, political, and economic isolation of the Cuban government and maintain our economic embargo as a form of leverage," Alexander Watson, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Children are suffering because of Castro's policies, not the US embargo," says Jose Cardenas, spokesman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, an influential exile group that opposes any engagement with President Fidel Castro Ruz.

And yet, quietly, a shift in US-Cuban relations has begun, involving policies on immigration, security, health, humanitarian aid, telecommunications, and drugs.

"If they were not so scared of domestic political repercussions, they could describe it as a change with bugles blowing," says Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University government professor currently with the Inter-American Dialogue, an independent research-policy analysis group in Washington.

The changes include:

* US talks with Havana that led Cuba to accept back 150 of up to 6,000 Cubans who came on the 1980 Mariel boat lift, committed crimes in the US, and are being held in local, state, and federal jails for deportation.

* Cuba handed over to the US Coast Guard-suspected drug smugglers who took shelter in Cuban waters.

* The US sent officials from the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to fight a reported epidemic in Cuba.

* The first confidence-building measures took place at Guantanamo Naval Station when US military officials notified their Cuban counterparts about impending maneuvers. Professor Dominguez called it "a classic maneuver ... to send a political signal."

* This month, after the State Department Cuba coordinator said he would only meet with Cuban exile groups that abide by the law, the Miami-based coalition Unidad Cubana expelled Alpha 66, a hard-line exile group that has threatened attacks on foreign tourists to Cuba.

* Charter flights to Havana were increased, and talks are under way to increase telecommunications links from the US to Cuba. …