WASHINGTON — BY rolling up the welcome mat for Cuban refugees and pledging to divert them to the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay in their homeland, President Clinton has at a stroke reversed one of the most enduring United States foreign policies of the post-World War II era.
Through eight presidents, the US stance toward Cuba remained basically unchanged: Fidel Castro Ruz was a tyrant who deserved no quarter from the White House. Cuban refugees were welcomed with open arms, as they were judged valuable evidence of unrest within the Cuban president's Communist regime.
Mr. Castro remains highly unpopular with the US government. But a souring domestic attitude toward immigration, combined with a parallel Haitian refugee problem, led Clinton officials to try to head off what they feared might become another boat lift on the scale of the 1980 Mariel Cuban exodus.
``It would be a huge crisis if large numbers of Haitian boat people and Cuban boat people were bobbing around the Caribbean at the same time,'' notes Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
No longer are Cuban refugees symbols of the downtrodden striving for freedom. The experience of Mariel, which dumped about 9,000 criminals and mentally ill people on US shores as well as legitimate refugees, has turned many voters in the politically important state of Florida against unconstrained Cuban immigration.
Administration officials now treat refugee outflows as something that favors Castro, instead of a valuable propaganda tool. Boat flotillas allow him to export those who might otherwise cause him trouble, they say.
``The problems of Cuba have got to be solved there by democratic reform, and we must not let this be used as a safety valve to keep the pressure off of him,'' said Attorney General Janet Reno at a White House briefing for reporters.
At this writing it was not clear whether Clinton's attempt to shut the refugee door was in fact deterring Cubans from taking to the Straits of Florida in boats and makeshift rafts. On Aug. 20, the US Coast Guard picked up 1,189 refugees - the highest daily number since Mariel. That means nearly 9,000 rafters have fled Cuba already this year.
The reversal in policy has sparked some unrest among Cuban Americans, with placard-waving protesters taking to the streets in Miami's Little Havana. A Florida International University telephone poll, however, found that overall 66.3 percent of residents in Miami's Dade County approved of Clinton's actions.
Ironically, the reversal in the US policy toward Cuban refugees comes at a time when Cuba seems to be careening toward some kind of major change. Deprived of Soviet subsidies, the Cuban economy is imploding; Castro has been forced to introduce some economic reforms, including recognition of the US dollar as a legal currency.
Meanwhile, Castro himself is not getting any younger. He has been making what some experts interpret as conciliatory noises toward the US, such as an offer to consider compensation for seized US assets.
Yet at the same time, most nonrefugee US policies toward Cuba remain basically unchanged since established by President Kennedy. The US doesn't have a policy toward Cuba, claims Larry Birns - only ``a habit.''
Is it time for a more creative approach than anti-Castroism and an almost total US economic embargo?
``The US has to develop a policy with respect to Cuba. It really doesn't have an active policy of any kind,'' says Matias Travieso-Diaz, a Washington lawyer active on Cuba issues.
In the past, the US has come close to some sort of eased relations with Cuba. Castro, in the end, however, always did something that caused US politicians to pull back. Thus a channel of secret talks was scuttled when Cuba sent troops to Angola in 1975.
President Carter opened minor negotiations on such matters as fishing rights, but then turned away from rapprochement when Cuban troops were sent to Ethiopia in December 1977.
A bold country-to-country opening along the lines of Nixon's dealings with China certainly seems unlikely. The Cuban-American community, for the most part, is both viscerally anti-Castro and politically powerful. The Cuban-American National Foundation and its vocal founder, wealthy construction magnate Mas Canosa, make sure Washington hears this anti-Castro message.
Clinton officials likely do not want to chance that an opening on their part would shore up Castro economically and psychologically at a time when he appears to be struggling.
For years a number of analysts, however, have been promoting intermediate measures the US could take, such as an increase in telecommunications links with Cuba, confidence-building measures with the Cuban military, and other moves to help open up Cuban society.
President Clinton Saturday said in a statement that he would use ``appropriate means'' to increase and amplify US radio and TV broadcasts to Cuba.
At the same time, Clinton said he was reducing the number of charter flights allowed between Miami and Havana and would no longer allow cash remittances to be sent to Cuba from the US.