That man in Havana sets a test for Clinton

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CUBA's parliament met briefly last month in the first session since its election in February. The only subject before it was the regime's raw survival. A series of crises has piled on top of the economic crisis induced by the collapse of the Soviet Union: there is the health crisis - a mysterious, blinding disease that has afflicted 45,000 Cubans and which may be linked to a sharp decline in nutrition; there is an energy crisis that has forced the authorities to cut back power supplies and brought oxen and bicycles back on to urban streets. There are latent social and political crises waiting in the wings.

In the midst of this gloom, though, Fidel Castro told the parliament, there was one bright spot: relations with the United States. 'This administration does not demonstrate the same level of aggression and hatred that previous administrations showed,' he said.

It was a surprising admission from a leader who has come to need implacable US hostility as a political justification for Cuba's collapse and it was swiftly qualified. It remains to be seen, Castro said, how the Clinton administration applies the Cuban Democracy Act - which extends the embargo against Cuba to foreign- based subsidiaries of US firms and bans ships that dock in Cuban ports from visiting the United States for six months. But for the US embargo, he went on, Cuba's factories would not be stalled and offshore oil exploration might have been further advanced. 'For every 10 people who want to co-operate with us,' he said, 'nine are put off.'

But Fidel Castro's warm words for President Bill Clinton were meant to be read as a reassurance: if the US administration were to soften towards Cuba, as President Carter once did, Cuba would be ready to respond. Washington needs that reassurance: the memory of the Mariel boatlift - the mass exodus to the United States in 1979 of more than 100,000 Cubans which followed President Carter's rapprochement - still burns. In 1980, Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, faced a riot of Marielitos, which was counted as one of the main reasons why he failed in his re-election bid that year. He knows the domestic risks of normalisation with Cuba.

He was reminded of this during the election campaign last year when he endorsed the Torricelli bill (which became the Cuban Democracy Act) to please the vocal and extreme elements of the Miami Cubans. Without his endorsement, it might not have become law, since President Bush and his advisers were wary of the potential for trouble in the legislation. Once Candidate Clinton had endorsed it, President Bush had to give it his approval, to the fury of his European allies. The UK, for instance, promptly passed its own legislation, repudiating the Cuban Democracy Act. The new law was condemned, by 59 votes to 3, by the United Nations and, despite his efforts to please, Mr Clinton did not win in South Florida.

The next test of the new administration's mettle on Cuba came with the nomination for the key post of assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. In February the transition team, searching for politically correct names, picked the New York lawyer Mario Baeza. Mr Baeza was Cuban by origin and black - a candidate, the team members innocently thought, who would please two constituencies at once. They were wrong.

There followed an embarrassing public row. Jorge Mas Canosa, godfather of the implacable Cuban-American National Foundation and leader of the revanchist Cuban lobby, liked neither Mr Baeza's colour nor his politics. Mr Baeza, he said, was soft on Castro. As evidence, he cited Mr Baeza's attendance at a conference in Havana the year before.

The administration backed down, humiliated by this public demonstration that Mr Mas Canosa, who had enjoyed decades of intimacy with the Republican Party, had the power to veto appointments under a Democratic administration. And, in giving in, it offended the Congressional Black Caucus. In an effort to regain face, the administration rejected Mr Mas Canosa's candidate, the chairman of the Florida Democrats, Simon Ferro. Nor did Sally Shelton, a Latin Americanist who had sought endorsement of her Cuba policy from the foundation, get the job. Instead, President Clinton appointed a career diplomat, Alexander Watson, who was finally sworn in on 2 July.

After such a poor beginning, what room is there for Bill Clinton to make a fresh start on Cuba? In strictly foreign policy terms, there has never been a better moment. The Cold War is over and even Elliot Richardson, the former US secretary of defence, now argues that Cuba represents no threat to the United States.

Cuba's economic transition has begun. European firms are investing heavily in the tourist industry and US hotel chains are growing restive: when the Cuban Interests Section held a reception in New York for US businessmen recently, the attendance list read like a roll call of business frustration, from IBM to the Hilton Hotel chain. There is a pragmatism in Havana - no doubt fuelled by desperation - that could be fanned into a peaceful economic and, perhaps, political transition.

But Cuba, as President Clinton knows, is not a foreign policy matter; it is a domestic tightrope. Mr Mas Canosa's stridency has increased if anything. Administration officials know that his policy can end only in blood, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Caribbean region, but seem unable publicly to defy his ability to deliver - or withhold - votes. There is little gain and huge risk, officials say, in normalising relations with Cuba.

Was Fidel Castro, then, whistling in the dark when he praised President Clinton? Not entirely. Administration officials may shy away from antagonising the Cuban-American National Foundation, but they are equally nervous of its ambition to provoke an uprising in Cuba that would permit the return of the Miami Cubans and a resumption of the status quo ante. It is a policy in which only Jorge Mas Canosa and his followers believe. Even such supporters as the Republican senator Jack Kemp have begun to rethink.

Although nobody in Washington expects a public repudiation of the hostility of the past 34 years, there are signs that the Clinton administration is trying to lower the temperature. Even under Reagan and Bush, talks continued between Cuba and the US on technical matters. These have grown more cordial and the US has been notifying Havana of US military movements round Cuba. An agreement has been reached for AT&T to upgrade telecommunications links and, so far, there has been no action under the Cuban Democracy Act.

But these tender signs of improvement have a long way to go before they force themselves into the political arena and in Washington it is thought premature that they should do so. The question is, can the Cuban crises be held at bay until Washington finds the nerve to normalise?