Clinton tries to end rift over Havana talks

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton met his top foreign policy advisers yesterday, with the White House and the State Department reported to be divided over whether to start talks with Cuba. The State Department wants to maintain the cold war against Fidel Castro until he falls. The White House would like to water down the measures announced last week to isolate Cuba, possibly restoring some rights of political asylum for Cubans who reach Florida.

Publicly, President Clinton says that he will talk to the Cuban government only about immigration and not about the embargo and other issues. But sources say the National Security Council, which is part of the White House, would like broader contacts with Havana, to explore the possibility of getting Cuba to stop people from leaving.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attacked the Clinton administration's public policy. The Committee chairman, Claiborne Pell, said the policy of maintaining the US trade embargo was contradictory. 'We are enforcing an embargo that makes conditions worse and is driving people out,' the Rhode Island Democrat said. Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said: 'The Cold War is over, but our policy remains the same.'

Angered by the hijacking of Cuban boats, President Castro told his coast guards on 5 August to stop putting obstacles in the way of people leaving Cuba illegally. About 16,400 Cubans have been picked up by American boats from rickety rafts and dinghies and taken to the US base at Guantanamo on the eastern tip of Cuba.

Rejecting expanded talks with Cuba on Thursday, Mr Clinton said President Castro should have a dialogue 'with his own folks'. The State Department said that to talk about anything other than immigration would imply the United States accepts it bears some responsibility for the situation in Cuba, which is forcing the boat people to leave.

The flow of boat people leaving Cuba slowed yesterday because of poor weather in the Straits of Florida, where there were 10-foot high waves. In the hours before dawn only 17 Cubans were picked up, compared to 500 during the same period the previous day. 'The weather is very bad out there,' said a US Coast Guard spokesman, Jerry Snyder. 'It makes it much more difficult for us to spot rafters because they're not visible due to high waves, fog and rain.'

It is the hurricane season in the Caribbean and a so-called tropical wave has been developing north of Haiti, putting in danger the flimsy craft sailing from the Cuban coast. In another development the US navy stopped a boat owner who was trying to smuggle nine Cubans into Florida, contrary to the policy that has ended their right to automatic asylum. Mr Snyder said: 'We are stopping and checking any vessels that appear to be of a suspicious nature.'

The problem for Mr Clinton is that he does not know what to do if the exodus of Cubans picks up again when the weather improves. Spanish radio stations in Miami are telling people in Cuba to wait. But they will tell Cubans to set sail again as soon as the storm dies away. Since Mr Clinton will not let them into the US, but does not dare return them to Cuba, he will be left with a large Cuban 'tent city' at Guantanamo.

A few months ago Mr Clinton reportedly rejected proposals to open talks with Cuba, to prevent just such a crisis as has now occurred. He apparently feared the reaction of the Cubans in Miami.

HAVANA - The writer Norberto Fuentes, who had been on hunger strike for 22 days because he was not granted permission to leave Cuba, flew with the Colombian Nobel prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Mexico yesterday, Reuter reports.

Garcia Marquez, who is an old friend of Mr Castro and often visits Cuba, apparently helped Fuentes obtain the permission to leave. He picked Fuentes up from his house and took him to Havana airport for a flight to Cancun.