The Clinton administration announced Saturday that it would open limited talks with Cuba on immigration matters in the hope of defusing the refugee crisis.
Along with bad weather, which again on Saturday apparently limited the number of Cubans taking to boats or rafts to flee, the agreement to talk gave the administration its first reason to hope that the outpouring of refugees, which began early this month, might be brought under control."The talks will deal with issues related to the promotion of legal, orderly and safe migration," said Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman. The talks are tentatively scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday in New York.
The agreement is also the first sign of conciliation on either side, although administration officials insisted that they were holding to President Clinton's position that immigration would be the only topic on the table.
The Clinton administration requested the talks on immigration a week ago in the hope of persuading the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, to stop the flow of thousands of Cubans on dangerously flimsy rafts and boats.
Castro responded last week by insisting on high-level talks on a wide range of issues, including Washington's three-decade-old trade embargo against Cuba.
Several administration officials said Saturday that they would not be surprised if Cuba's negotiators sought to raise subjects other than immigration at the talks.
But McCurry said: "Our intent is to confine these talks to immigration issues. As we indicated in the past, we see no need for a dialogue on broad issues because we see no evidence from Fidel Castro that he under- stands the need for change."
In Edgartown, Mass., a senior White House official traveling with Clinton during his vacation said: "We're not willing to talk to him about lifting the trade embargo. We see no reason to proceed with higher level talks."
Under the Cuban Democracy Act, enacted in 1992, the trade embargo is to be lifted only when Castro takes substantial steps toward democracy.
According to State Department officials, the administration will use the talks to urge Castro, first, to stop Cubans from risking their lives by leaving in unseaworthy vessels and, second, to discourage Cubans from seeking to enter other countries illegally.
Another topic on the agenda will be Washington's plans to expand the opportunities for Cubans to emigrate legally. In addition, the adminis- tration will seek to persuade Castro to take back more than 1,500 criminals who came to the United States during the Mariel boatlift in 1980.
The Coast Guard reported the exodus of Cubans had dropped off again Saturday because of rough seas and bad weather. But administration officials trumpeted some other news indicating their message was getting through to the Cubans that the boat people would not be admitted into the United States: 225 Cubans being held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base have asked to be sent back to Cuba.
"Our people down there are absolutely convinced this is totally voluntary," a State Department official said.
The Clinton administration contacted the Cuban government on Friday night about these 225 Cubans, administration officials said, noting the two sides are seeking to work out whether and how this group would be returned.
Administration officials say they hope these requests to return to Cuba will convince Cubans the raft trips are not worth the risk because the boat people will merely end up trapped in an unpleasant tent city at Guantanamo Bay.
Since Aug. 19, the Coast Guard has intercepted more than 12,000 Cubans in the Straits of Florida as they sought to come to the United States. On that date, Clinton reversed long-standing U.S. policy and ordered that the boat people be barred from the United States and instead be taken to Guantanamo Bay. Clinton was seeking to stop a huge exodus like the Mariel boatlift.
Fearful of angering Castro, administration officials strained not to portray the talks as an American victory in which Castro was forced to accept less-ambitious, lower-level talks than he had sought.