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Castro's on-again, off-again courting of US is on again

Fidel Castro continues to baffle Washington. Although he had some rough things to say about the US back in the summer, he has been making a series of overtures since Sept. 15 that to many observers appear to be an olive branch.

The last evidence was Havana's announcement Oct. 13 of the unilateral release of more than 30 US citizens held in Cuban jails on a variety of charges.

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Earlier, as part of what appears to a coordinated, if so far unreciprocated, campaign of peace and friendship, the Cuban leader:

* Sent back to the US two recent Cuban refugees who had skyjacked a Delta Airlines jet from the US to Cuba.

* Allowed 300 Cubans holed up in the US interests section in Havana to return to their homes with guarantees that they would be safe.

* Ended the sealift of Cuban refugees, which had allowed 127,000 Cubans to go to the United States from May 1 through Sept. 15, overtaxing US facilities trying to accommodate them.

The State Department expressed surprise at Dr. Castro's latest action -- the release of the US citizens. It had no advance knowledge of the action, and found out about the releases only when the Cuban interest section, attached to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, made an announcement.

There was some confussion over the actual number of those being released -- figures ranged from 33 to 43. The Cubans in Washington used the higher total, but it apparently included some who have duel Cuban-US citizenship, while there are 33 on the list who are strictly US citizens. In addition, a list in Havana indicated 37 were being released, while other Havana sources said the total at 40.

Whatever the actual number, there is little doubt that this latest gesture by the Castro government is aimed at showing Cuban goodwill toward Washington after some months of acrimony.

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Just what prompts the whole Cuban effort at patching up things is unclear. But time and again Dr. Castro has shown current effort may well be a move not only to curry favor with Washington, but also to inject himself into the US presidential campaign.

Dr. Castro has had some harsh things to say about Ronald Reagan, and he clearly prefers Jimmy Carter as president. When Mr. Carter came to the White House in 1977, Dr. Castro was enthusiastic and, despite disagreements in the years, since has continued to express his liking for the Georgian.

also in 1978 and 1979 Cuba allowed close to 1,000 Cuban Americans, together with their Cuban families, to leave the island and go into US exile. In addition, Cuba opened the doors for visit to the island by some of the 650,000 Cubans who had gone to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. And Havana began a series of steps aimed at eliminating tension between the two countries, including an agreement on joint fishing rights and the opening of limited diplomatic relations.

Dr. Castro obviously hoped for reciprocal concessions from the US, perhaps including the ending of the 18-year trade embargo with the island. The reciprocity did not follow; indeed, President Carter seemed to take an increasingly hard line toward Cuba.

The US particularly took exception to the presence of thousands of Cuban troops in Africa -- especially in Angola and Ethiopia. At one point, President Carter complained openly and bitterly about a Cuban role in guerilla fighting in Zaire's Shaba Province, only to have to back down later when intelligence reports suggested the Cubans were not involved.

Then in September 1979 the Carter administration suddenly took exception to the presence of Soviet troops in Cuba, as if it were something new. Again the Carter administration had to back dwon -- causing aguinsh and unhappiness for Fidel Castro.

Cubanologists say that through it all, however Dr. Castro has held stubbornly to the view that Jimmy Carter is probably the best person for the presidency as far as Cuba is concerned.

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