Clinton offers Castro talks on immigration

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton last night offered talks on immigration with Cuba. But he said he would not discuss other issues as the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, has demanded. Speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House, Mr Clinton said 'the people of Cuba want democracy and free markets.'

His offer is unlikely to defuse the crisis over the influx of Cuban refugees, since Havana is refusing to stem the exodus unless there are talks about the US embargo and other problems.

Meanwhile a storm with 10ft waves and 30mph winds is forecast to hit the Florida Straits at the weekend, endangering the jerry-built rafts and dinghies in which Cuban refugees are trying to reach the US mainland. Failure by US officials to dissuade Cubans from making the 90- mile crossing means that the several thousand people at sea will be vulnerable High winds and rain are already making the seas rough and, for the first time in days, no rafters were putting to sea yesterday from the beach at Cojimar, east of Havana.

Poor visibility, already down to one mile near the Florida Keys, is making it difficult for coast guard cutters and light aircraft to see the refugees. Although it is the hurricane season in the Caribbean, the boat people who set sail, sometimes held up only by inflated inner tubes from tractor tyres, have so far only coped with two- or three-foot waves. Officials fear many will drown if their flimsy craft are caught by the advancing storm.

The refugees show no sign of being convinced that the US will stick to its new policy of denying them political asylum and sending them to its base at Guantanamo in Cuba, which is being tripled in size. It may be expanded to hold 60,000 people. 'We don't see any slowdown in the pace,' a US coast guard official said about the numbers leaving Cuba. He said that 3,096 people were picked up by US ships on Wednesday and a further 936 by midday yesterday.

A sign of the turmoil in US policy is that the administration says Cubans sent to Guantanamo will, in effect, have to stay there, until Mr Castro is replaced as President of Cuba. Many refugees say they believe that they will ultimately win asylum in the US.

Mr Castro says that Cuban coast guard ships will, in future, give food and water to people on rafts and in small boats trying to sail to Florida. The new policy shows that Mr Castro believes the exodus of refugees is causing more problems to President Clinton than to himself.

At a press conference on Wednesday President Castro explained for the first time how he has eased the way for Cubans to set sail for Florida. He said that the root cause of the desperation, which led people to try to leave Cuba, was US policies, which 'compel illegal immigration, compel the massive exodus.'

Mr Castro said he had told his coast guard ships on 5 August to stop obstructing people trying leave Cuba illegally. His new instructions to supply food and water to boat people suggest he wants the exodus to continue, to force Washington into direct talks about the US embargo.

This puts intense pressure on Washington. The Cuban refugee crisis is being spoken of as another foreign policy debacle for Mr Clinton, on a par with Somalia and Haiti. The Washington Post reported yesterday that for months, mid-level State Department officials had recommended that the US start talks with Cuba, to prevent the sort of crisis now occurring.

The Attorney General, Janet Reno, pleaded with Cubans to apply for asylum in the US at the interest section in Havana and not to risk their lives at sea. The US is worried Havana might withdraw its troops around Guantanamo, allowing the base to be engulfed by refugees coming by land. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is to break his holiday in California and return to Washington to take charge of policy.

Nobody in Washington is speaking of an invasion of Cuba. It would certainly be resisted by the Cuban army, the largest in the hemisphere after the US army. Mr Clinton calculates that he would damage himself if started talks with the Cuban government, as urged by some Democrats. But without talks he cannot offer any incentives to Mr Castro to stop the boat people coming.

The crisis is that it has sidelined White House efforts to get the Haitian military out of power. 'The confrontation with Cuba is a political heat shield protecting the generals in Haiti,' a former State Department official said.

(Photograph omitted)

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