Cuban Refugees: an Early Clinton Challenge?

FIDEL CASTRO may be planning an early foreign-policy challenge for President-elect Clinton.

At a time when the Clinton team is attempting to forestall a flood of refugees from Haiti, Castro may open the gates to a new flow of Cuban refugees.

An analyst long close to the Cuban dictator's thinking says the reasons for such a move would be threefold:

1. It would be an early embarrassment for Mr. Clinton, who would have to choose between refusing such refugees from a communist regime, or admitting them at a time when the American economy is ill-prepared to absorb them.

2. It would relieve Castro of having to care for unenthusiastic supporters of his regime at a time when his economy is crumbling.

3. It would dampen political opposition; Cubans able to leave legally would be less likely to engage in anti-Castro activities.

Experts are particularly intrigued by a recent defection to Florida by a Cuban commercial pilot with 47 passengers aboard his airliner. Cuban airliners on internal flights ordinarily are permitted enough fuel to reach their destinations plus a few minutes extra flying time for safety reasons. In this case, say the analysts, the plane carried fuel for a journey three times longer than scheduled.

It could be that Castro was aware of the flight in advance and instructed his intelligence agents to let it go. Cuban sources have since indicated that they could have shot down the plane in flight but allowed it to proceed "because there were women and children aboard."

Analysts looking at the data would not be surprised if Castro were soon to announce, "for humanitarian reasons," that he is prepared to permit the legal departure from Cuba of a new flood of Cuban refugees to the United States.

That would put Clinton in a difficult position. He is already seeking to head off an unwelcome flood of Haitian immigrants. During the presidential campaign, he took issue with the Bush administration for turning back Haitian refugees. This was mistakenly interpreted by many Haitians as a signal that once a Clinton administration was installed, the doors to America would be open to them.

Now Clinton is trying to make it clear that he will enforce existing immigration rules that require proof of political persecution to acquire refugee status. This is to screen out Haitians who are not being persecuted, but who seek better economic opportunity in the US.

The Cuban migration ploy, if Castro launches it, will plunge the Clinton administration into a critical assessment of its policy toward Cuba.

On the one hand, Castro has devastated Cuba's economy. But while the collapse of Soviet subsidization has hit Cuba hard, Russia will still trade oil, wheat, and spare parts for sugar, nickel, and tobacco. Hard-liners in the Russian military who do not want to lose their Cuban outpost have signed an agreement under which they will, for the first time, pay rent for their electronic eavesdropping base at Lourdes. Staffed by 2,000 Russian technicians, it monitors communications inside the US. And, although w ork on Cuba's nuclear power station at Cienfuegos is at a standstill, Russia, with the help of a third party (France is rumored), may finish it off. That could meet 25 percent of Cuba's power needs and reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

But the consensus is that Castro has no future. The question for the Clinton administration is: When and how will he go and what should the US do about it? An early challenge by Castro to the new administration may cause Clinton to focus on this far sooner than he had intended.

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