Some Cuba-watchers are examining prospects for reconciliation between backers of Cuban President Fidel Castro and government opponents, many of whom have fled the communist-run island. But researchers and observers say hopes for reconciliation have been dealt a severe blow by a recent crackdown on dissidents.

Reconciliation: it is what Eastern European nations worked to achieve after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and what South Africa has aimed for since the end of apartheid. It can be a slow, grueling and painful task, as groups that once viewed each other as enemies strive for unity and a settling of grievances. Yet the process is essential if a nation is to emerge from a dark period and embrace a better future.

Kevin Whitaker, who heads the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs, says the seeds of national reconciliation have been planted in Cuba. "Changing Cuba is going to come from Cubans, and I think it is already underway," he said.

Mr. Whitaker spoke at a conference in Miami sponsored by Florida International University. He points to the emergence of small, but significant, groups of dissidents and independent journalists in Cuba as an initial step toward forging an independent civil society that can serve as a foundation for reconciliation.

But the dissidents have been silenced. In March, scores of government opponents were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.

Kevin Whitaker is dismayed by the crackdown.

"In order to have a functioning democracy, you have to have a vibrant and truly independent civil society. And that is why the events of the last six weeks are so depressing," he said. "The regime's response to the creation of a truly independent, authentically nationwide civil society has been the most significant act of political repression in the Americas in decades. This is the regime's answer to those who seek peaceful change: 20 years in jail."

Despite the crackdown on independent thought, some Cuba watchers say all is not lost. Florida International University researcher Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuban-American, says Cubans can promote reconciliation through direct contact between those who reside on the island and exiles living in Florida and elsewhere.

"It is rare these days to find families that do not talk to one another because of political reasons," she said. "Cubans from Cuba who may support the government come and visit their relatives here, and vice versa. That is a good, healthy sign."

Ms. Perez-Stable says she is a firm believer in people-to-people contact across the Florida Straits, and that she would oppose further U.S. measures to restrict travel to Cuba in response to the crackdown on dissidents.

But she says she has no illusions about the challenge of reconciling bitterly opposed groups of people, after decades of enmity, distrust, and suffering.

"There is an awful lot of anger among individual Cubans," she said. "Without doubting the good reasons for that anger, we cannot go forward into the future basing our relations on anger and revenge."

The State Department's Kevin Whitaker says Cubans themselves bear responsibility for the future of their nation. But he says the United States will not be a passive observer to what transpires on the island.

"The United States intends to play a very important role in a democratic Cuba. We have much at stake historically. We have much at stake in terms of national security, and we have much at stake from a moral point of view to make sure that Cuba is democratic and successful and a good neighbor in the hemisphere," he said. "It is not all up to us, obviously. It is not simply a matter of U.S. will or U.S. money. It really has to come from Cuba at the end of the day."

Florida International University researcher Marifeli Perez-Stable says, for reconciliation to succeed, Cubans of all political stripes must, in a post-Castro era, agree to close the book on totalitarianism and embrace democratic rule. But she adds that those ordinary Cubans who today back the island's communist system must not be subject to reprisals in the future.

"Cubans need to start a dialogue. We need to reintegrate the memories of our past, not to declare new winners and losers, but to make Cuba whole," she said. "The basic premise is that the revolution and the opposition were both legitimate expressions of Cuba. If there is to be reconciliation, we must accept both as part of Cuba."

Those advocating Cuban national reconciliation admit that little can be achieved as long as Fidel Castro remains in power. But they maintain that the groundwork for bridging differences can be laid today, and that the sooner the process is initiated, the greater the likelihood of success at some future date.