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Canadian leader presses Castro on dissidents

Promoting dialogue over confrontation, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien discussed human rights with Fidel Castro on Monday, giving the Cuban president a list of four dissidents Canada would like to see freed.

Chretien, one of the most important Western visitors to Cuba in years, said he dedicated about a third of his 2{-hour meeting with Castro to human rights.

"He defended his legal system, but he took the list and said he would consider it," Chretien said at a news conference afterward. "I didn't think he was very happy."

The dissidents were arrested last summer after criticizing Communist Party policy documents. They have not been tried.

Aides insisted that Chretien, who arrived Sunday, was able to raise tough issues with Cuba because Canada has always stood against the 36-year-old U.S. embargo and could speak as a friend.

Chretien said he told Castro that to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba "there has to be change on both sides," but he did not hold out much hope.

Castro "is a very communist person," he said. "He believes in the system he has. I don't expect there will be a general election with any opposition this week."

Welcoming Chretien on Sunday, Castro lashed out at the United States, suggesting war crimes trials for what he called the "holocaust" of the U.S. embargo of his nation.

"No state should think it has the right to kill another people by hunger and sickness," Castro said, adding that those who impose the embargo "should be brought before international tribunals and tried as war criminals."

The Canadian visit is one of a series of recent foreign relations advances for Cuba. They include January's visit by Pope John Paul II and this month's vote by the U.N. Human Rights Commission to avoid condemnation of Cuba.

For Chretien, it was a chance to showcase Canada's policy of promoting change through "constructive engagement" rather than the U.S. approach of isolation and confrontation.

He said Canada's policy stood the best chance of coaxing Cuba back into joining what he called "a more dynamic, more democratic, more prosperous hemisphere."

Chretien shrugged off U.S. unhappiness with the visit, saying he had spoken with President Clinton before coming to Cuba. "The only comment he made to me was, "I hope you raise human rights,'

" Chretien said.

The four jailed dissidents Chretien mentioned were Marta Roque, an economist and head of the Independent Economic Institute; Vladimiro Roca, president of the dissident Social Democratic Party; Felix Bonne, head of a human rights group called Civic Current and an economics professor at the University of Havana; and Rene Gomez, who heads the Independent Lawyers Association.

Chretien himself did not plan to meet with dissidents, instead sending two senior aides to talk with several leading dissidents.

Earlier, Chretien and Castro witnessed the signing of agreements on health, film and sports cooperation. Chretien also announced an agreement in principle for Cuba to pay compensation for the assets of insurance companies expropriated after the 1959 revolution, helping pave the way for protections of Canadian investment.

Canada is crucial to the Cuban economy, providing nearly a sixth of Cuba's 1.2-million tourists and much of the foreign investment in mining and petroleum.

Despite a lack of fanfare for Chretien's trip, many Cubans were happy to have the Canadian leader in their country.

"The visit is very good, and what he said about Cuba is very good, that our country should open up and that the world should open up to us, as the pope said. That is what we all want," said Junior Rojas, an 18-year-old student.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley said Canada's policy is not going to work while Castro's communist government is in office.

"I think we've made clear all along that we are skeptical that government-to-government engagement with Cuba can yield beneficial results on the human rights front" until Cuba undergoes democratic change, Foley said.