Russia wants Cuba-U.S. breach healed

January 18, 1992|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

MEXICO CITY -- Moscow's top Latin American diplomat said Cuba "should send signals" to the United States that it is willing to "bend over backward" to negotiate an end to their 33-year-old feud.

Valeri Nickolaenko, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin America department, declared that Moscow, having helped the United States resolve the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan civil wars, would now give top priority to lifting the U.S. blockade against Cuba and re-establishing normal ties between the two countries.

Mr. Nickolaenko did not say what signals Cuba should send to the Bush administration.

But during an interview here, he described the island nation as a prideful anachronism in the face of the democratic winds that have shaken the former Soviet empire and Latin America.

"Many of their shortcomings originated from our own bad advice," he said, referring to the communism that ruled the Soviet Union for most of this century.

Asked what advice he would give to Cuba now, he said: "Be attentive to the fact that the world is changing."

Mr. Nickolaenko made known his views after serving as the official Russian representative at Thursday's signing of the Salvadoran peace accords here.

It was Mr. Nickolaenko and his U.S. counterpart, Bernard Aronson, who cajoled and threatened their former Salvadoran proteges into seeing the futility of their conflict. A similar effort was successful in ending the contra war in Nicaragua.

Now Mr. Nicholaenko is turning his sights on a subject that is infinitely more sensitive to the Bush administration, the persistent dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

Unlike the Reagan administration, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to talk with Cuban representatives until Havana adopts human rights and democratic reforms.

Administration officials have predicted that President Castro would fall this year, since the Cuban economy is devastated by the loss of East bloc trading partners and reduced Soviet aid.

But there has been slight indication that Mr. Castro's popularity has diminished. Many Cubans view him as a source of pride and a genuine hero who defied the United States.

Latin diplomats were hopeful that the breach could be healed a bit Thursday when Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Isidoro Malmierca, the Cuban foreign minister, attended the Salvadoran peace ceremonies.

Asked if anything transpired between the two men, Mr. Nickolaenko simply noted that they were seated at the same table at the official luncheon.

"I don't know anything beyond that," he said, adding that he talked to Mr. Baker about the planned Middle East peace conference in Moscow but not about Cuba.

Mr. Baker also met Thursday with three of Cuba's three chief intermediaries, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, President Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela.

The three presidents have been pressing Mr. Castro for months to adopt democratic and human rights reforms that would meet the Bush administration's criteria for closer relations.

But all three were embarrassed late last year when Mr. Castro suddenly appeared in Mexico as though about to make a major announcement and instead sounded his familiar litany of complaints against the United States.

Officials of the former Soviet Union and the three Latin presidents have been trying to reassure Mr. Castro that Cuban sovereignty is not at stake, but the dictator continues to raise the specter of a possible U.S. invasion. His suspicions were fed recently by the botched attempt of three Cuban exiles from Miami to land weapons in Cuba. Two of the three have been sentenced to die as counterrevolutionaries.

Mr. Nickolaenko said that, despite such hard-line attitudes, there were indications that the atmosphere may be changing. He cited the recent Cuban-sponsored conference on the 1962 missile crisis that was attended by Mr. Castro, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and former Soviet military officials, among others.

Mr. McNamara later called for normalization of relations and an end to the U.S. blockade.

Mr. Nickolaenko also noted that cracks have begun to appear in the powerful Cuban exile community in Miami and that many are no longer as rabidly anti-Castro as before.

He said he recognized the unique "political" problems of the Bush administration, which is heavily supported by rich anti-Castro Cubans and conservatives.

Mr. Nickolaenko refused to speculate that the Bush administration might be more willing to come to terms with Cuba if the president won a second term.

"I will simply observe that some Americans are ideologues at a time when the world is becoming unipolar and pragmatic," he said.

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