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Posted May 13, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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By GEORGE GEDDA | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP)—When Cuban diplomats in Washington wanted to buy a car, they would go to a showroom or a used car lot or check the Internet—just like Americans. Not any more.

Now they will have to import cars, much as American diplomats in Havana are required to do when they buy vehicles.

With echoes of the Cold War, the Bush administration and Cuban authorities are in an escalating tit-for-tat reminiscent of darker days in U.S.-Cuban relations—but involving mundane issues like fixing embassy plumbing.

Last week, frustrated by what it called harassment of U.S. diplomats in Cuba, the Bush administration informed the Cuban mission here that it will have go through the State Department for maids, drivers, electricians, plumbers, air conditioner repairmen and other service personnel, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That measure matched a Cuban requirement that U.S. diplomats in Havana go through the Cuban Foreign Ministry to obtain such services.

The Bush administration official said there is suspicion that the personnel sent in response to service calls have other skills, such as planting bugs.

Efforts to obtain comment from Cuban officials were unsuccessful.

The U.S. action recalls a similar measure applied by the Reagan administration during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and its allies were forced to deal with the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions whenever they needed help for a leaky faucet, faulty electrical wiring or other problems. The rationale then, as it is now, was the same: reciprocity. After the collapse of European communism, the successor governments were allowed to deal directly with service companies.

U.S. officials were unable to say whether Cuba is the only country now barred from such contacts with these companies.

According to the officials, harassment of American diplomats in Havana is commonplace and extends well beyond the need for official intervention for routine service calls.

As examples, officials said tires on diplomats’ cars have been punctured on occasion. They also suspect that traffic “accidents’’ involving official U.S. vehicles were actually planned and staged by Cuban agents.

The State Department, the officials said, does not plan to respond in kind.

There is, of course, more substantive friction between the two countries.

Philip Peters, a vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy group, said the tit-for-tat over diplomatic missions is a secondary issue to those more weighty disputes.

“The higher issue is how the administration will respond to Cuba’s crackdown on dissidents,’’ Peters said referring to the arrests and long prison sentences handed down against opposition leaders earlier this spring. The Bush administration is currently weighing its options.

Two months ago, Cuba decided to clamp down on travel by American diplomats, demanding that each trip beyond a specified area around metropolitan Havana be approved. Before, the only requirement was that Cuban authorities be notified of such trips beforehand.

The State Department responded immediately by imposing the same condition on travel by Washington-based Cubans.

The Cuban measure apparently was triggered by Havana’s unease over the travels of the chief U.S. diplomat there, James Cason. He logged an estimated 6,200 miles motoring around the island, sometimes meeting with dissidents.

Cuban President Fidel Castro saw these contacts as subversive and used them partly as an excuse for his March crackdown on 75 dissidents, many of whom were described by the government as traitors. All were sentenced to lengthy prison after brief trials.

The State Department defended Cason’s travels, saying he was seeking a peaceful transition to democracy on the island. It rejected Cuban allegations that U.S. diplomats have provided money to dissidents.

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