Havana's gamesmanship

Diplomat: Flouting the rules can only impede improvement of U.S.-Cuban relations.

February 29, 2000

IT IS NOT TRUE that Cuba and the United States lack diplomatic relations. They maintain embassies in each other's capitals under the fiction of having an "Interests Section" within Switzerland's embassy.

These embassies operate under diplomatic niceties worked out over centuries to allow countries to deal with such delicate matters.

One of these niceties is diplomatic immunity. A diplomat accused of misbehavior is not charged, but instructed to leave. The accusation need not be proven. The accused diplomat just exits. His or her country denies the charge and replies in kind to one of the first country's diplomats. Then they get on with business.

When Cuba's Washington diplomat, Jose Imperatori, was accused by the United States of receiving classified information from a U.S. immigration official, he refused to go. He was flouting the conventions, under orders from Havana.

The United States must prove nothing against Mr. Imperatori. Washington cannot accept that he relinquished diplomatic immunity. That would jeopardize the immunity of U.S. diplomats in Havana.

The uproar is a tactic of Fidel Castro, whose regime has been served well by its efforts to whip up Cuban opinion over Elian Gonzalez. Havana claims the Imperatori incident is about Elian. It is not.

That Cuba hired Kurt L. Schmoke from the Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering to represent Mr. Imperatori is neither here nor there. Representing clients in legal predicaments is what lawyers do.

Cuba has no role in the coming defense of the immigration official who is charged with spying for Cuba. It does have a relationship with the U.S. to nurture.

The cause of improving that relationship is hurt by the spat over Mr. Imperatori. He should have just gone home. That is what diplomats do.

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