Castro grabs the cameras to show delight at US move

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The Independent Online
IN A remarkable turnaround for one of the most prickly foreign policy relationships in the world, the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, responded immediately and with warmth to news from Washington that economic sanctions were to be eased. Even before the formal announcement had been made by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, yesterday, Mr Castro appeared before the cameras of the global news network, CNN, to describe the changes as "really positive".

US officials had let it be known the previous day that an announcement was imminent on a relaxation of policy towards Cuba. It was expected to include the resumption of direct flights between the US and Cuba, an increase in the amount of medicine and pharmaceutical supplies provided to humanitarian organisations in Cuba, and permission for Cuban exiles in the US to remit a limited amount of money - up to $1,200 (pounds 725) annually - to relatives in Cuba.

In his response, Mr Castro said the changes would help improve relations between the US and Cuba and pledged Cuba would do its part to make things better. He stressed, though, that Havana would not abandon the one-party system, and said he wanted to see full details of the announcement before giving a full assessment.

Cuba's foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who was in Geneva, appeared out of line with the new tone. He dismissed the US moves as "crumbs" and part of a political manoeuvre that Cuba could not accept.

Explaining the policy shift in advance, US officials said the decision reflected broad consultation on Cuba policy on the part of the US administration and the positive results of the recent visit to Cuba by the Pope. They stressed that the policy shift was in recognition of the greater "space" allowed to opponents of Fidel Castro's communist regime in the wake of the Pope's visit, and designed to assist people without assisting the regime.

Their comments also made clear, however, that, while the economic embargo would remain in force, Washington was no longer aiming to use political and economic isolation to topple Mr Castro. This detail that may explain the Cuban leader's positive response.

In one respect, the policy changes return the situation to what it was two years ago, before Cuba shot down two small planes piloted by Cuban exiles. In others - the increase in medical supplies, and possible sales of food - they go further, and open the way for an eventual relaxation of the economic embargo. A softening of US policy also makes it less likely Washington will apply the Helms-Burton law - which threatens sanctions against third countries and individuals that do business with Cuba. This would remove a source of tension in Washington's relations with European countries and Canada.

Domestic reaction in the US was divided, illustrating the sensitivity of any change in US Cuba policy. The large and vocal Cuban exile community in Florida was split between groups pleased that maintaining ties with relatives would be easier, and those objecting that the memory of the four dead pilots was being dishonoured.

There was strong opposition, too, from the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Jesse Helms, and two Cuban-born congressmen from Florida. Among other things, they questioned whether Mr Clinton had the authority to reinstate direct flights to Cuba, for instance, that had been legislated by Congress.