Washington — Even if Cuban President Fidel Castro refuses the new United States offer of a prescreened air- or sealift of refugees, part of President Carter's new plan -- a crackdown on the "freedom flotilla" -- may succeed.
That, in turn, would end the perilous ragtag evacuation, allow the State of Florida and federal refugee officials time to cope with the 43,000 cubans now in this country, take away Mr. Castro's leverage over future US-Cuban talks, and in effect freeze the refugee count somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000.
As of the afternoon of May 15, there was no word that the Castro government would accept the Carter proposal. Mr. Carter admitted when he announced the plan May 14 that no assurances had been received from Cuba. Most Caribbean affairs observers in Washington seemed to feel Cuba's assent was unlikely.
But from Miami came word that the combination of stiff penalties on boat operators, the presidential plea for restraint, and the rising frustration in dealing with the Cuban government, might be having some effect.
Spanish-language talk shows, radio broadcasts -- particularly those from station WQBA, which had prompted street demonstrations at the outset of the crisis -- were relatively indifferent to news of tougher law-enforcement by US Customs and the Coast Guard. There were no major expressions of protest by Cuban-Americans.
"I definitely think there's a slowdown going on," said WQBA general manager Herb Levin, who has watched developments in the Cuban-American community. "No one wants to be in contravention of law. But there's a little ambivalence. They'd still like to have their mothers come out of Cuba."
If a boat operator sees that a shrimper that had carried refugees from Cuba is impounded for three weeks and faces a heavy fine, "he's going to think twice about taking a charter to go out to Cuba," said a man who has been working with law enforcement authorities to slow down the flotilla. "If the price of a refugee mission goes up to $10,000 a refugee, then that, too, will have some effect."
Will the impromptu sealift be replaced by an official, US-sponsored mission?
"My own opinion is that Castro won't go along with the idea," says L. Francis Bouchey, an official with the Council for Inter-American Security in Washington. "I expect he will probably let the people in the Peruvian Embassy and those in the American interest section go, but beyond that it's going to be, 'no.' He wants to make it as difficult and troublesome for President Carter as he can."
Congressional leaders generally favor the presidential proposal, but most have been unsure Mr. Castro would agree to the screened air- or sealift.
Federal authorities have been ordered to impound all boats arriving with refugees and serve captains with subpoenas and notices of intent to fine them. The Coast Guard has been radioing all boats in the Florida Straits and in the port of Mariel, telling them to return without picking up refugees. At midweek, more than 1,000 were reported in the bay at Mariel.
Beyond the moratorium -- if it is accomplished -- President Carter will be faced with at least three important decisions:
* Whether to announce a ceiling on the total number of immigrants the US will receive this year. If he leaves the number of refugees at 234,000, then it is possible the numbers of Indochinese or Soviet Jews will have to be decrased to accommodate the flood of Cubans.
* Whether to declare a blanket refugee status for the Cubans -- a move being vigorously opposed in advance by many congressmen and immigration watchers.
* How to deal with the Haitian refugee situation. Pictures 1 through 5, no caption