Warmer Winds Are Blowing From Washington To Havana

As Fidel Castro courted leaders from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal at a recent summit in Brazil, Cuba's economic czar, Carlos Lage, laid on the charm for U.S., Mexican, and European business executives at a Havana conference.

Both Cubans came away with small triumphs. Castro persuaded the Latin leaders to criticize the U.S. embargo against Cuba--though in the coyest terms. And after the Havana powwow, some U.S. executives said the time had come for the U.S. to drop its embargo and resume normal ties with the impoverished island. "I should be able to travel there and do preliminary work and keep track of my foreign competitors," said one frustrated U.S. executive.

The Clinton Administration is waiting for the outcome of an interagency review before declaring itself on Cuba. But close watchers of the Washington-Havana tea leaves think they detect a change from the rigid position of Bill Clinton's Republican predecessors. "There is a reasonable spirit here in Washington compared to the Reagan extremes regarding Cuba," says Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll Jr., director of the Center for Defense Information. Carroll and other retired U.S. officers recently visited Havana to discuss ways the two countries can improve relations.

GENTLE PRESSURE. Despite campaign posturing to the contrary, Clinton has cooled off the hard-line rhetoric that prevailed under George Bush and Ronald Reagan. He is also expected to soon issue new rules that would allow American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and other U.S. telecommunications operators to begin sharing some revenues with the Cubans--a step toward better phone connections.

Meanwhile, gentle pressure is building among some members of Congress as well as factions of the Cuban exile community for the U.S. to go a different route. "Cuba policy is growing as an issue," says Representative Jos E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "People are asking why we have relations with China and not Cuba."

Polls show that most Cuban-Americans oppose any thawing of relations. But the powerful Cuban American National Foundation dominated by Miami Cubans has lost much of its entree to the White House, and Congress may chop funding for CANF's pet projects such as TV Mart .

In this climate, the Administration seems headed for a deal with Congress that keeps most restrictions but opens up travel and communications--anything likely to promote change in Cuba. The U.S., for example, is easing up on visits by teachers, artists, and religious groups, as well as the export of books and films. "Look at the Warsaw Pact," says a congressional aide. "Where there was a lot of intellectual exchange, the system collapsed."

Their collapsing economy is forcing some changes in Cuban thinking as well. Food and medicine are scarce or nonexistent except on the black market, and blackouts are common. At the Havana conference, executives heard about plans to attract foreign investment in tourism, oil, and nickel ventures. The Cubans also want private partners for 131 state companies in everything from sugar refineries to electronics. To tame the black market, Castro will soon declare the dollar legal tender.

Of course the trade floodgates with the U.S. aren't going to fling open very soon. But in the post-cold-war world, pressures to end the U.S.-Cuban standoff are mounting.

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