Castro Just Might Reach For The Olive Branch

Something's got to give. The Clinton Administration's policy of warehousing Cuban refugees at Guantnamo while trying to further isolate the Castro regime is looking more and more unsustainable. That's partly because the refugee flow isn't going to dry up. Guantnamo will fill up even if the exodus ebbs to 300 to 500 a day. And rising discontent could upend Clinton's strategy by sparking a riot. "The immigration threat is one of the few Castro has left," says Gillian Gunn, director of the Cuba Project at Georgetown University. "He is unlikely to entirely shut down the flow until he gets the U.S. to address some aspect of the overall relationship."

The main political target of Clinton's policy, of course, is not Castro but Florida with its Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who fears that a refugee wave could sink his reelection chances. That's why Clinton hopes to keep a lid on things at least until November. So he is offering Castro an escape valve for some 20,000 legal Cuban immigrants annually, long authorized by U.S. law, in return for Castro's help in curbing the rafters. For Castro, an orderly outflow of discontented Cubans would ease internal tensions.

"FIRST STEP." Beyond such a limited quid pro quo, Clinton is wary of taking additional steps. Further dealings with Castro could cause the Cuban-American right wing to turn on him--and Chiles--in fury.

Still, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's recent statement--that the U.S. would consider easing Cuba's isolation in response to positive steps by Havana--could mark the beginning of a path through the deadlock. Strictly speaking, Christopher broke no new political ground: He was quoting the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the U.S. embargo against Cuba but offered just such a limited olive branch. The catch is that Castro must make the first move.

Some experts think Castro may be ready to do that, starting with steps toward a freer economy. In 1993, he launched such reforms but pulled back. But RaPound l Hinojosa Ojeda, a visiting scholar at the Inter-American Development Bank, says Castro's economic advisers now are much like those the U.S. has worked with in Eastern Europe. "I have never seen Cuba more ready and willing to contemplate [reforms]," he says. "This would be the first step toward political liberalization."

In Washington, there is growing political support for engagement. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Richard D. Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are among legislators advocating this. "It's important that we begin to spell out what we are prepared to do to reward Cuba for moving toward democracy," Hamilton says.

Such views, along with editorials in influential U.S. newspapers calling for steps from negotiations to outright repeal of the embargo, give Clinton a measure of political cover for shifting course. If Cuban officials were to mention in the immigration talks that they were mulling a political amnesty, it could be hard for the Administration not to respond.

What both the Haitian and Cuban crises suggest is that the Administration has let larger U.S. foreign-policy interests be sidetracked by parochial concerns because it hasn't figured out what its long-term objectives are. In late August, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown was in China wooing Beijing despite China's high-profile human-rights abuses. If the U.S. can court Chinese business, it may be increasingly difficult for Clinton to refuse even to talk to Havana.

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