IN A dramatic sign that political reform may be about to dawn in Cuba, the Foreign Minister, Roberto Robaina, confirmed yesterday that he had had talks in Madrid with representatives of three exiled dissident groups.
Coming amid the exodus of Cuban citizens to the United States and as Washington and Havana negotiate on ways to curb the human flood, the contacts mark the first time the Communist regime of Fidel Castro has met openly with foreign dissidents since the revolution 35 years ago. It also coincided with a remarkable appeal to the Clinton administration yesterday by leaders in the Congress to reverse the 32-year-old American policy of isolation of the Caribbean island and to seek to increase contacts and trade as an alternative means to foster change.
On a week-long visit to the Spanish capital, Mr Robaina confirmed that he had held talks with Ramon Cernuda, president for the Co-ordinating Commitee of Human Rights; Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, the Group for Political Change president and Alfredo Duran, formerly a state legislator in Florida.
They are at the moderate end of the spectrum of anti-Castro organisations based outside Cuba. Mr Robaina said they were 'persons who have a positive respect for the country and ideological differences with us'. Mr Robaina told reporters that they did not cover a political transition, 'rather how they could be useful from where they are. Any transition will be done with Fidel. For Cuba, Fidel signifies dignity'.
An expert on Cuba at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, Larry Birns, acknowledged such contacts were unprecedented but warned against concluding too much from the meeting: 'This is a reconnaissance exercise, a periscoping of the horizons.' Offering a personal prediction that President Castro may have another 10 years in power and has more leverage over Washington than at any time since the missile crisis, Mr Birns said that the Cuban leader is nonetheless exploring routes towards economic and social liberalisation. 'But it will be evolution, not revolution', he suggested.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, can hardly ignore the appeal for a policy overhaul towards Cuba that was voiced by the chairmen of both the Senate and House foreign relations committee, Senator Claiborne Pell and Representative Lee Hamilton, in yesterday's Washington Post.
Urging a series of steps to reinstate contacts with Cuba, the two Democrats argued: 'Cuba poses no threat to the security of the US. Yet Washington's hardline stance continues - more a product of shortsighted domestic politics than prudent foreign policy considerations'.
Negotiations between the US and Cuba on stopping the refugee exodus were halted in New York on Wednesday, when the Cuban representative, Ricardo Alarcon, returned to Havana for consultations. The Cuban Foreign Ministry said yesterday there were some encouraging signs from the talks, adding that they would probably resume today. Cuba is asking the US to increase dramatically the number of visas on offer to Cubans in exchange from help from Mr Castro to end the refugee tide.
So far Washington has refused to widen the talks to consider the 32-year-old US embargo. The exodus across the Florida straits continues unabated.
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