From Afghanistan to Zaire, the State Department has long provided the public with background information on foreign countries, much of it now available on the Internet. Perhaps not surprisingly, such "country reports" tend to dwell more on population statistics and climatological data than anything that might make for interesting reading.

But Cuba, apparently, merits a different approach.

Taking the concept of public diplomacy to a place it's never been, State yesterday unveiled a jazzy new Web site--complete with National Geographic-style color photographs and captions--whose purpose is to promote and explain the Clinton administration's policy of trying to isolate the Communist-controlled island.

The message, in effect, is this: Cuban people, good; Fidel Castro, bad.

"We think it helps the isolation policy to have the world understand that it is a policy that is directed against the Cuban government, not against the Cuban people," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "The more the world understands the nuances and subtleties of our Cuba policy, the more the world will, hopefully, focus on . . . violations of human rights and the refusal to pursue democracy."

The Web site is not entirely hostile. It notes, for example, that Castro has relaxed restrictions on the practice of religion and three years ago invited Pope John Paul II to visit his country. The site also explains the practical effects of the U.S. trade embargo, which bars tourist and business travel to Cuba but makes some exceptions for humanitarian aid and "people-to-people" contacts aimed at promoting democratic change.

"Let's face it, American citizens are interested in what they can and can't do with respect to Cuba," Rubin told reporters yesterday.

But the Web site also takes a highly critical look at Castro's revolution. A picture of a crumbling apartment block is accompanied by the caption, "Multi-family occupation of often unsafe housing is common. The government uses scarce resources to restore and preserve historic sites intended for tourist use."

A caption, beneath a photo of a street crowded with bicyclists, observes, "As the transportation sector deteriorated, Cuba's love affair with the automobile was replaced by resignation to the bicycle."

As for the Cuban people, the site has nothing but praise. "Cubans are innovative and energetic," says a caption beneath a photo of a woman selling books. "They have vigorously embraced the limited entrepreneurial opening the government was forced to make."

Web surfers can visit the site at www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/cuba/index.html.

CAPTION: The State Department's Web site takes public diplomacy to a place it's never been.