WASHINGTON — WITH the US-Cuba migration agreement reached in New York last Friday, administration officials believe they have finally headed off a domestic political nightmare: a desperate wave of Cuban rafters overwhelming US resources as they paddle for south Florida's shores.
But prevention of another Mariel boatlift is only a short-term policy achievement. If nothing else, the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis has served notice that the US needs a long-term plan for dealing with a Cuba that seems to be sliding towards major political and economic change.
Broader talks with the Castro regime aren't part of any Clinton administration Cuba strategy - at least not yet. US officials deny that in return for the migration pact they have agreed to sit down with Cuban emissaries and discuss the US economic embargo of the island, or any other comprehensive issue.
They maintain that Cuba has to take the first step. If significant steps towards democracy and improved human rights are taken, the US might then be willing to gradually increase ties with the nation it has shunned for more than three decades.
``There would be a response on the part of the United States if certain things happened in Cuba,'' said Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff at a press briefing Friday.
Still, the migration accord is a significant milestone in Cuba-US relations. It marks the first time in 10 years that the two countries have been able to agree on a substantial diplomatic pact.
Clinton officials did their best to present the accord as a much-needed foreign-policy success. The President's quick decision to intern rafters at the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, plus his cutback on remittances sent from Cubans in the US back to their homeland, combined to stop a disaster in the making, they insisted.
``It was the impact of all these presidential decisions that brought us to the point of agreement'' on migration, said Tarnoff.
Under the terms of the agreement, the US promises to take in at least 20,000 legal immigrants from Cuba annually, not including immediate family relatives of Cubans already in the US. Those on the current visa waiting list would also be immediately waved in - a one-time action that the State Department estimates will result in 4,000 to 6,000 additional Cuban immigrants.
In return, the accord holds that Havana will use ``mainly persuasive methods'' to stop the rafter exodus.
As of this writing the practical effect of the accord was not yet apparent. Hundreds of would-be refugees were reported to be rushing construction of their makeshift rafts to try and escape before Cuban police begin a scheduled crack-down on Tuesday. Bad weather in the straits of Florida, however, promised to make any raft trip difficult through the weekend.
Both sides gave in a little to reach the migration pact. For the US, signing the accord was a tacit admission that a 1984 agreement intended to produce a substantial increase in legal immigration from Cuba has not worked as planned. Cuba, for its part, dropped a demand that the US loosen its economic embargo and restrict US government-funded radio broadcasts beamed at Cuban territory.
Cuban negotiator Ricardo Alarcon tried hard to get the US to talk about more than narrow migration issues. While he did not overtly succeed, and drew no commitment from the US for follow-up talks on any subject, Cuba received much publicity for its contention that the US embargo is a root cause of its economic troubles. Perhaps Castro is counting on a swelling tide of domestic dissent in the US to push President Clinton towards closer engagement; perhaps there is an implicit agreement for dialogue down the road.
``It's unthinkable that this was a rare moment of Castro charity at work,'' judges Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. ``He had such leverage over Washington. He was in the position of either saving Clinton's political neck or causing him endless problems.''
Other analysts point out that President Clinton has now done exactly what he vowed he would not do: allow Fidel Castro to alter US immigration rules.
``Through blackmail Castro has been able to change US policy,'' says Frank Calzon, Washington director of the New York-based Freedom House.
Considering the past means the Castro government has used to suppress domestic dissent, the promise that they will employ merely ``persuasive'' methods to keep rafters at home is an empty one, according to Calzon. ``I don't have a lot of faith in any kind of agreement'' with the Castro regime, he says.
Cuban rafters detained at Guantanamo Bay aren't very pleased with the migration pact, either. Some 2,500 Cuban protesters broke out of their holding camp on Saturday in protest. The protesters broke up and returned to their tents after being addressed by the US general in charge of Cuban and Haitian refugee encampments.