Speak of (and to) the devil Cuba debate: Florida's hardest-line exile and Havana official make contact.

September 12, 1996

OTHER EXTRAORDINARY contacts have happened, on the Gaza-Israel border, near Khmer Rouge territory in Cambodia, in a woodland home in Norway. But this one was only on the airwaves thanks to modern communications. Communist Cuba's third-ranking official sat in a Havana studio. The Florida Cuban exile community's most anti-Communist leader and the panelists were in Miami. They talked. Not much, but nothing like it had happened before.

Ricardo Alarcon is president of the Cuban National Assembly, former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the U.S. on such issues as immigration. Jorge Mas Canosa is a Florida construction magnate whose Cuban American National Foundation exercises enormous anti-Castro influence, terrifies U.S. policy-makers and virtually dictates the line taken by Radio Marti at U.S. taxpayer expense.

Mr. Mas Canosa has denounced moderate exiles who have sought dialogue with Fidel Castro. In turn, he is routinely branded by Havana as a Mafioso and CIA agent. But in the debate taped Aug. 23 by a Miami Spanish language cable network, CBS TeleNoticias, Mr. Mas Canosa was initiating dialogue.

He even said that should Mr. Alarcon win an election, he would support the result. Mr. Alarcon conceded that Communist Cuba had made mistakes. Fidel Castro, the aging Cuban dictator, was not present. But it is reasonable to infer that this dialogue, between its lines, was a start at probing the possibilities after his inevitable departure from the scene.

The Cuban government has disowned Mr. Alarcon's appearance representing nothing but himself. There is, however, no such thing as a purely personal action by such a high-ranking official. For his part, Mr. Mas Canosa is fending off charges of having gone soft. They agreed on virtually nothing, but made policy turn-arounds for their respective institutions in talking to each other.

The tape was broadcast in Miami, made available to stations in 20 countries, and is still popping up on Spanish-language cable around the U.S. The one place it has not been aired in Cuba. The next step in an expanding positive dialogue would be to correct that.

( Pub date: 9/12/96

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