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Castro's opportunity

Cuban President Fidel Castro claims he wants to gain Washington's favor, but his apparent decision not to return fugitive American financier Robert Vesco to the United States gives ammunition to those who oppose any effort to ease the longstanding tension between the two governments.

The Cuban government arrested Vesco on espionage charges earlier this month after giving him a decade of refuge. Though Castro never formally offered to return Vesco, the Cuban government hinted at the possibility of Vesco's extradition to lure U.S. diplomats into a new round of talks that could have led to less strained relations. But now Castro says it would be immoral to allow Vesco's extradition because it would make Vesco a "political pawn" in U.S.-Cuban negotiations.

Castro says he plans to have Vesco fully investigated and put on trial in Cuba if evidence points to violations of Cuban law. If he sticks to that plan, he may blow a rare opportunity. President Clinton, who has said he is prepared to ease sanctions against Cuba "in a carefully calibrated way" in response to positive developments there, almost surely would have reciprocated in return for Vesco, who has been running from U.S. officials for 23 years.

After all, the charges against Vesco are staggering. In 1989, he was indicted in absentia for facilitating drug trafficking for Colombian kingpin Carlos Lehder Rivas. Seventeen years earlier, he outran Securities and Exchange Commission charges that he looted a European mutual fund of a quarter of a billion dollars. He also was accused of trying to bribe the Nixon administration to cut short the SEC investigation.

Our government shouldn't assume that Castro's latest statement is the last word on Vesco, or on the broader possibility of diplomatic progress. Washington has successfully negotiated with North Korea, Syria and a host of other unsympathetic governments, and it should be able to do the same with Cuba when it is to our advantage. For now, though, it's up to Castro to show that he truly has something to offer. Vesco would be a nice prize. Genuine democratic reforms would be even nicer.