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U.S. Signals Cuba It's Ready to Deal : Refugees: Secretary of state says Administration may ease restrictions on legal immigration. Statement appears meant to encourage progress at upcoming talks.


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Sunday sent a signal outlining a possible U.S. deal with Cuba on migration, saying the Clinton Administration may allow more Cubans to enter the United States through legal immigration if Fidel Castro agrees to stop his citizens from going to sea in rafts.

In a television interview, Christopher suggested that the Administration is willing to change current policies, broaden the categories of Cubans who can immigrate legally and speed up the processing of their applications if that will help end the crisis.

His statement was the clearest public signal yet of the Administration's willingness to meet one of Castro's longstanding demands: easier legal emigration for discontented Cubans.

"We're quite prepared to talk to them about legal, lawful migration to the United States, how to make that more effective, what categories of people can come in to the United States," Christopher said on the CBS-TV program "Face the Nation." "We're quite prepared to consider lawful migration, perhaps enhanced lawful migration, if they're prepared to stop the unlawful migration."

Until now, U.S. immigration policy has granted legal entry only to about 3,000 Cubans a year in three categories: those with close relatives already in the country, those with needed skills or those with a documented history of political persecution.

At the same time, however, U.S. law allows Cubans who enter the country illegally to stay and apply for refugee status.

Castro has long complained that the effect of that policy was to encourage illegal emigration, including boat and aircraft hijackings. Earlier this month, when Cubans rioted over economic problems and emigration restrictions, Castro announced that his government would no longer stop citizens from going to sea--producing an exodus of more than 17,000 Cubans in two weeks.

Last week, the Clinton Administration proposed formal talks with Cuba on the immigration problem, and the negotiations are expected to begin in New York on Wednesday.

Christopher's statement appears aimed at encouraging the Cubans to come to the talks ready to make a deal that could help end the crisis.

"We want them to know that we are serious about having substantive, productive talks," a Christopher aide said.

Although Castro has used the crisis to renew his demand for a lifting of the three-decade-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, experts say they believe that his real objectives are far more modest: easier legal emigration, U.S. prosecution of Cubans who make it to Florida in stolen aircraft or boats, and restoration of permission for Cuban Americans to send money to relatives on the island.

On Sunday, Castro took a small step toward reimposing control over seaborne emigration from Cuba, announcing that he has ordered his coast guard to stop people from taking children to sea on unsafe boats and rafts.

An order signed by Castro said the measure was taken to protect the lives of Cubans who are too young to have "the capacity to decide for themselves," the Reuters news agency reported from Havana.

An unknown number of refugees, apparently including some children, have died after setting to sea on flimsy homemade rafts made of inner tubes, Styrofoam and wood.

Officials said the number of rafters found in the Florida Straits slowed even further Sunday, apparently because of scattered showers and choppy seas.

By evening, only 61 Cubans had been plucked from the 90-mile stretch of sea separating Cuba and Florida, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.

Castro's order said the Cuban coast guard will patrol territorial waters within 12 miles of the island's coast to "provide help if necessary" for people aboard rafts and boats but will not arrest them.

The Clinton Administration welcomed the action as an apparent step in the right direction. "If the Cuban government is taking steps to discourage illegal migration that puts Cuban citizens at great risk, then we would welcome that development as consistent with our view," State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said.

The emigration crisis has thus placed Castro and Clinton in paradoxical positions: Castro is now actively assisting Cubans who want to flee to the United States, and Clinton is implicitly asking him to use his repressive police forces to stop them.

Castro wants to allow discontented Cubans to leave as a "safety valve" that removes potentially dangerous dissidents from the island, but he does not relish the damaging image of his countrymen fleeing desperately on rafts.

Under a 1984 accord, the United States agreed to admit 27,845 Cubans each year as legal immigrants, but in practice the U.S. government has admitted only a small fraction of that number.

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