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Caribbean Winds Change

CARIBBEAN breezes have lately carried signs of change in relationships between the United States and three close neighbors - Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. The change in atmosphere is positive for Cuba and Haiti, but upsetting for the administration of the new Puerto Rican government, led by Gov. Pedro Rossello, who advocates statehood for the Commonwealth.

Haiti's situation takes first priority. In the past 18 months it has challenged first President Bush, and now President Clinton. Exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide remained in Washington while thousands of his Haitian constituents risked their lives in unsafe boats to join him in the US.

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Many were lost, and most others were interned or sent back to Haiti. Their plight followed the usual pattern of such drawn-out events: While their travail continued, public consciousness and concern in the US abated. The Clinton administration, which hasn't had many early successes, deserves praise for its endeavors to find solutions to Haiti's troubles.

The Puerto Rican situation is a different case. The question of statehood really is up to Puerto Ricans themselves.

But trade relations with Washington have soured. At issue is a policy under which US companies with facilities in Puerto Rico and some other US territories have been exempt from paying income tax on earnings there.

President Clinton wants to replace that with a 65 percent tax exemption on wages paid by the companies to their workers.

The advent of the North American Free Trade Association of the US, Mexico, and Canada triggered the change.

The existing tax exemption, known as Section 936, affects an estimated 520 companies that employ 115,000 Puerto Ricans directly and account for another 2,000 jobs indirectly.

The US commonwealth's unemployment rate currently runs at around 15 percent.

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Puerto Rican business and community leaders see the proposed change as a disaster in the making. They envision the commonwealth's economy reverting to its previous, parlous condition, much like that of Haiti.

Then there is Cuba and Fidel Castro. There are signs of abatement of long-standing hostilities between the US and Cuba.

Mr. Castro has gone so far as to declare that, if rapprochement with Washington required it, he would be willing to give up his tight rulership of Cuba. Last March he said, in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC, that if the US demanded that he step down as the price for lifting its embargo against trade with Cuba, he would be open to negotiating the move.

He would not be without support in such talks. Last November, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for an end to Washington's embargo against Cuba.

The vote was 59 for ending the trade blockade; three opposed (the US, Israel, and Romania), and 79 abstaining. All European Community members, plus Russia, abstained, as did Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Many Cuban exiles in the US still hope for an anti-Castro revolt. But other exiles want Washington to seek discussions.

At this point that means talking to Castro.

Neither side appears ready just yet to make the first effort to communicate on the possibilities. But the hint of compromise is in the Caribbean breeze.

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