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Nipping around the edges of the Cuban embargo

Call to ease sanctions is part of decades-long effort to handleCastro.

In the late afternoon of Sunday, April 19, 1957, Fidel Castro met with Richard Nixon in the bowels of the US Capitol in Washington.

Cuba's young "maximum leader" was touring the US at the invitation of journalists. To then-vice president Nixon, he seemed both charismatic and malleable.

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"We have no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right direction," Mr. Nixon wrote in a memo after the meeting.

Some orientation. Forty-two years and eight presidents later, Fidel Castro's Cuba remains one of the United States' most enduring - and irritating - foreign policy concerns. The hirsute dictator has hectored away over the decades, blaming Yankee Imperialists for his nation's ills while ruling with little mercy. The US, in turn, has tried to poison his cigars and sent mercenaries to overthrow him.

Lurching attempts at easing tensions never get far, mainly due to Castro's intransigence or to US domestic political concerns. In more recent years the US has maintained its embargo on virtually all economic ties with the island, even though most of the rest of the world opposes it.

North Korea, Vietnam and China are all US trade partners in some measure. But not Cuba. "Sometimes, I fear the United States is searching in the dark to end this process of confrontation with the island, but they can never find the light switch," says Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Foundation, a Miami-exile group against the embargo.

President Clinton is simply the latest US chief executive to discover the outsized symbolic importance of the bottle-opener-shaped island below the straits of Florida.

Mr. Clinton's proposals, set for announcement Jan. 5, would ease the economic sanctions ever-so-slightly, letting more money and people flow to Cuba. The changes would even allow the Baltimore Orioles to conduct home-and-home exhibitions with Cuba's national team, if a way can be found to stop Castro's government from profiting from the baseball games.

But the Cuba initiative does not include the wholesale embargo changes that a group of 24 senators, and such foreign-policy luminaries as Henry Kissinger, have recently called for. The administration rejected proposals to set up a bipartisan commission to undertake a comprehensive review of US Cuban policy.

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"Pressure was building from many quarters and this was the administration's chance to take some steam out of the movement against the embargo," says Juan del Aguila, a political science professor at Emory University, who specializes in US-Cuban relations. "Really, it doesn't change the basics of the equation. It satisfies some of the smaller requests for changes without antagonizing those in favor of the embargo."

A number of factors weighed against major shifts in the US-Cuba equation.

For one, Castro remains as prickly as ever, despite the collapse of his former patron, the Soviet Union. He has offered little in the way of moves towards democracy since Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba last January.

For another, the administration does not want to give the powerful Cuban-American lobby an issue to campaign against Democrats with in the 2000 elections.

Indeed, the toughest anti-Castro Republicans are complaining that the US has already gone too far.

"While [Clinton's move] does have a few positive elements, these are merely included . . . to mask the Clinton administration's true intentions of normalizing relations with the Cuban dictator," says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. (R) of Florida.

The changes are meant to help the Cuban people, not Castro, say Clinton officials. "We want to expand the space available to private Cubans," explains one official. This can be achieved through such moves as fewer restrictions on airline flights to Cuba, promotion of people-to-people contacts, and the relaxation of rules against sending money to Cubans.

Several anti-Castro groups question the merits of some aspects of this approach. "We are happy Cuban policy is not going to significantly change," says Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman of the powerful anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation. "The only thing we object to is selling food to private entities' in Cuba. There are no private entities in Cuba."

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