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Cuba offers to negotiate seized U.S. assets

In an apparent overture to the Clinton administration, Cuba has reported that it is cutting its armed forces and is willing to negotiate reparations for Americans whose Cuban property was expropriated at the beginning of the Cuban revolution in the early 1960s.

For several months, Fidel Castro's government has been sending signals that it wants the Clinton administration to lift the longstanding U.S. embargo, which the Cuban government blames for much of its economic crisis.

The announcements Tuesday were made by Prensa Latina, Cuba's official news agency. The agency, echoing statements made by army chief Raul Castro in April, said Cuba would cut its estimated 175,000-member armed forces by an unspecified number.

The Cuban government has cited economic difficulties and the country's new lack of interest in foreign military missions as reasons for shrinking the armed forces. Shortages of gasoline and other supplies have been forcing cuts in every sector of the economy.

In the last three years, Cuba has lost its main military backer and supplier of hardware, the Soviet Union, and has recalled tens of thousands of its troops from Africa and Nicaragua. According to Prensa Latina, Cuba bade a ceremonial farewell Tuesday to its last brigade of 3,000 departing Russian soldiers. Only a few Russian advisers remain.

Also on Tuesday, Ernesto Melendez, president of Cuba's State Committee on Economic Cooperation, was quoted as saying Cuba was prepared to discuss property expropriated from Americans, as part of general talks on normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations, and the U.S. embargo has been in place since 1962.

The embargo was first imposed to retaliate for Castro's seizure of American private property in Cuba. According to State Department figures, 5,911 American individuals or companies had property confiscated, ranging from houses and cars to Coca-Cola bottling plants and sugar mills. The total value in the 1960s was estimated at $1.8-billion, which the U.S. government calculates at $5-billion to $6-billion now.

Cuban-Americans who have emigrated to the United States also lost all private property they could not carry out of Cuba. None of those holdings are included in the $1.8-billion figure, and the Cuban government has not proposed compensating those losses. But it has previously said it was willing, in principle, to negotiate on the American losses.

The United States is the only country not to have reached an agreement on property expropriated by Cuba. Spain and Cuba signed an accord in 1986 after a dozen years of negotiations, according to Wayne Smith, a Cuba specialist and former head of Cuban affairs at the State Department.

Settling the American accounts is now a remote possibility, according to Smith and U.S. officials.

Although the two countries discussed the possibility of negotiations on the expropriated property as early as 1977, there has been no direct communication on the subject lately, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said Tuesday.

Suffering a severe economic crisis in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Cuba does not have anything close to the amount of money Americans would seek for compensation. Cuba would also undoubtedly make counter-claims, including the $30-billion it claims to have lost as a result of the U.S. embargo as well as damages sustained in the Bay of Pigs invasion. And in exchange for any concessions, Cuba wants the American embargo lifted.

President Clinton is highly unlikely to accept any of these conditions. During the election campaign last year Clinton courted anti-Castro Cuban-Americans and strongly endorsed a bill tightening the embargo.

Cuban-Americans hoping for the fall of Castro read Tuesday's announcements by the Cuban news agency as a sign of increasing desperation on the part of the Cuban government.

Ralph E. Fernandez, counsel for a group of Cuban ex-political prisoners, said it was a virtual death knell for Castro's regime. "Something is really up when Castro changes his posture from "socialism or death' to "socialism or death or whatever,' " Fernandez said.

The concessions are proof that the embargo is steadily crippling Cuba's economy and that it should be continued until the government collapses, he said.

"Maybe by the fall Cuba will be free and then I'll be free and I'll be a very happy man," Fernandez said.

_ Information from Times staff writer Bill Duryea was used in this report.

Nerve outbreak growing

GENEVA _ The World Health Organization said Tuesday that an epidemic nerve disorder in Cuba had altered in form and spread sharply to affect some 39,000 people.

The outbreak, diagnosed as optic and peripheral neuropathy, causes temporary loss of eyesight and appears increasingly as a numbness in the limbs, the organization said.

The new figure _ 39,422 recorded cases as of June 10 _ is a jump of more than 50 percent from the 26,000 cases May 1, WHO said, citing Cuba's Health Ministry.

"We were all surprised the figure is going up so much," said Bjorn Thylefors, a Swedish doctor who heads the organization's blindness prevention unit.

Health experts said they think a combination of toxic factors, vitamin deficiency and possibly a viral agent were behind the epidemic _ but they still had no clear explanation. "We are still at a loss," Thylefors said.