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Can the US deal with the wily Castro?

There is talk again of United States talks with Cuba - either directly or through the Mexicans.

No international circumstance frustrates the people of the US more than the existence 90 miles from their shores of an antagonistic island regime advancing the interests of America's primary global adversary. For 22 years, Cuba has become periodically the center of national debate, either because of refugees within the US, upheavals in Central America, or actions by the Soviets.

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This is true again today. The concern is sparked by recollections of the Mariel small-boat invasion, by events in Nicaragua and El Salvador and, most recently, by a vague reference to retaliation by Brezhnev, interpreted by some as a reference to Cuba.

What chances are there that talks of any kind with Cuba can succeed in reducing American concern and frustration?

The answer begins with the fact that, in any talks with or about Cuba, there are three agendas: Castro's with the US, the US's with Castro, and the US's with the Soviets. Basic issues cannot be resolved without addressing all three.

Cuba has its own agenda for any discussions with the US. That agenda seeks assurances against actions by the US, either covert or overt, against Cuba. It includes lifting measures taken against Cuba over the long recent history of our tangled relations: the embargo on sales to Cuba, the restrictions on communications and transport, and the closure of the US market to Cuban sugar. At some point in any discussions, Castro is almost certain to add another issue, the future status of the US naval base at Guantanamo.

While the US may be willing to discuss these issues, it has its own agenda which, in the view of any administration, must come first. This agenda includes Cuban political and military actions in support of revolutionary regimes in Central America, the presence of Cuban forces in Angola and Ethiopia, and, on the bilateral plane, claims against Cuba for the property and interests of US citizens confiscated at the time of the revolution.

The likelihood is that Castro will resist discussing his relations with other countries, at least until his own agenda is addressed. Cuba considers that it has its own obligations and interests in Central America and Africa. It does not acknowledge that it acts as a Soviet surrogate or that these matters are the business of any other country, particularly of the US. Castro would probably be prepared to discuss the claims but, again, in the context of US readiness to discuss his agenda.

There is a third agenda, a US-Soviet agenda, to which Castro has not been a party. The resolution of the Cuban missile crisis and the understandings reached between the US and the Soviet Union regarding the deployment of Soviet weapons systems to Cuba were reached without any Cuban involvement. Neither have subsequent discussions between the US and the Soviets on such matters as the MIG-23s in Cuba or the Soviet brigade stationed there. Neither party has wanted to bring Cuba into such discussions; this situation is not likely to change. And when the US talks to the Soviets, they, too, have an agenda.

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The Mexican proposal to talk with Cuba and to encourage direct US talks with Cuba focuses primarily on the Central American item of the US agenda. Will Castro be prepared to discuss that without also raising the items on his agenda? Does the latest Brezhnev statement hinting at retaliation in the face of theater nuclear weapons in Europe suggest that the US-Soviet agenda will also become active?

Talks between Castro and the US on single issues have been held in the past with some results. Prisoners were freed from Cuban prisons. Cooperation in narcotics and air-sea rescue has been possible between the respective coast guards. The small-boat invasion from Mariel was halted.

In each case, there was a single issue in which both sides had demonstrable interests. Beyond such issues, the discussions can become much more complicated with fewer possibilities for success.

This results not only from the problem of the multiple agendas, but from the nature of Fidel Castro. To those US citizens whom he occasionally welcomes to Havana, he talks of better relations with the US and appears reasonable in his approach. He clearly charms with his special charisma.

To those officials who may have followed up over the years, either with him or with his representatives, another side appears. They are more likely to encounter the shrewd, enigmatic, devious revolutionary, seeing it to his advantage to extract the maximum from a worried giant and, in doing so, to enhance his own position domestically and in the region.

There is no reasonable alternative to ultimate discussions with Castro if we are to find solutions to our Cuban dilemmas. We should have no illusions that such talks will be easy. They will involve, first of all, an argument over agenda. They will involve, secondly, finding bases for common interests in complicated matters with a wily, complex personality. They may involve, finally, separate talks with global implications with the Soviets.

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