Arrest Of Fugitive Financier May Signal Thaw By Castro

Ten years ago, when asked about the presence of Robert Vesco in Cuba, President Fidel Castro said Americans lacked moral authority to criticize Cuba for giving sanctuary to the fugitive financier.

The United States, he said, had given a red carpet welcome to thousands of murderers, thugs and other criminals identified with the previous regime in Cuba. In effect, he said Cuba needed no lectures from the United States on immigration issues.

At the time, it was hard to envision that Castro would ever offer to turn Vesco over to U.S. authorities. The notion of Castro making good-will gestures towards the United States seemed out of the question.

But in Castro’s weakened position nowadays, with Cuba’s economy still moribund, he apparently has decided to see if a unilateral gesture toward the United States might elicit a positive response.

U.S. officials caution that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the meaning of Vesco’s arrest in Cuba last week. They are convinced that Vesco in some way angered Cuban authorities, but they also point out that U.S. and Cuban officials have held only two inconclusive meetings on the subject thus far.

Vesco is suspected of being an agent of “special foreign services” and of sowing sedition, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a prepared statement Saturday. The statement gave no other details, other than to say the case remained under investigation, and the ministry would not elaborate.

But it would have been inconceivable just a few months ago for Castro to have arrested one of America’s most wanted men and then signal an interest in extraditing him.

Gestures toward the United States have never been part of Castro’s repertoire. Indeed, Castro has patterned Cuba’s entire political, social and economic system to be the diametric opposite of that in the United States. He once denounced American imperialism 88 times in a single speech.

The initial response of the State Department to Castro’s move was predictable: An improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations hinges on political and economic reform in Cuba, not on Cuba’s willingness to extradite Vesco or any of the other 90 American fugitives from justice now living in Cuba.

But Castro may be trying to build on some signs of new thinking towards Cuba in Washington. Exhibit A was the administration’s decision last month to repatriate all Cuban boat people for the first time in three decades. The administration went ahead with that decision knowing full well the outrage it would generate among many Cuban-Americans hostile to Cuba. It was a move that surely did not go unnoticed in Havana.

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a public policy group, said the arrest of Vesco may be part of an effort by Castro to change his image in the United States. Many Americans have told Castro that Cuba’s harboring of American criminals plays into the hands of conservatives who favor maintaining hard line policies.

As Hakim sees it, Cuba is telling the United States: “‘You can trust us. You can deal with us. We’re not going to create problems for you.”’

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