Bush's Cuban quandary

While President Bush has been focused on troublesome problems in far-off Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, he is paying new attention to Cuba, which could cause election-year problems in his own backyard.

Bush's new interest in Cuba comes at a time when there is evidence of a policy split between Fidel Castro and his hard-line supporters on the one hand, and, on the other, a group of well-placed officials and military men who favor a softer line at home and a warmer relationship with the US.

The maneuverings are subtle and extremely cautious, because overt opposition to Mr. Castro has dire, and sometimes fatal, consequences.

One of the most intriguing signs was the presentation to the Cuban parliament Oct. 3 by dissident leader Oswaldo Paya of 14,384 signatures demanding sweeping political reforms. Last year he delivered 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly voicing similar demands. Lawmakers dismissed the earlier petition, which triggered a government crackdown and lengthy prison sentences for dissidents, including activists in the Varela Project, as the petition movement is called. It is so named after Felix Varela, a Cuban independence hero. But Paya vowed to continue and was back this year.

Well-informed Cuban observers say someone in high places has to be protecting him. Says one: "You have to be careful not to upset the apple cart in Cuba. The security system is so tight, you don't just walk into the National Assembly and deliver a petition calling for a referendum on freedom of speech and assembly and amnesty for political prisoners. Somebody allowed him to do it. Somebody opened the door."

But on the other side of the coin, hard-liners around Castro might be deriving comfort from the apparent elevation in the hierarchy of Ramiro Valdez, a semi- retired former interior minister with a reputation for repressive inclinations and activity. In Cuba's July 26 national celebrations he was given a position of honor beside Castro, stirring speculation that he might even be being positioned as Castro's successor, a role long thought to have been reserved for Raoul Castro, whose health may now be in question.

The issue dividing these carefully jousting factions is how Cuba should represent itself to the outside world at a time when its economy is in tatters and it desperately needs foreign friends to come to its aid. Recent arrests, imprisonment of dissidents, and even political executions have soured opinion in European countries like Spain, Italy, France, and Germany where Castro once could find some sympathizers. Meanwhile, President Bush is hanging tough against the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, which might open the floodgates to trade and travel and generate an inflow to Cuba of desperately needed American dollars.

One Republican senator, Norman Coleman of Minnesota, visited Cuba a few weeks ago in a mind to vote for lifting the sanctions. But after meeting with dissidents, he changed his view. The crackdown in Cuba has also caused slippage of support in the House for lifting the US ban on travel to Cuba, which some economists think could funnel more than $500 million a year into that country. Last month, the House voted 227 to 188 to lift the ban, but support is down from 262 who favored it last year. The president is opposed to such liberalization and, last week, pledged tighter enforcement of the embargo.

"Cuba must change," Mr. Bush told Cuban exiles and anti-Castro groups, and he said he is setting up a government commission to help move Cuba to democracy whenever Castro leaves power. Cuban exiles are a critical Florida voting bloc in the upcoming presidential election.

This was not the softening in the US position that Castro deems essential if he is to ease his terrible financial crisis. One former confidant of Castro says the Cuban leader is now confronted by a dilemma. On the one hand, he could woo Bush by offering a carrot with the concessions apparently being advocated by some of the more pragmatic supporters in his entourage. This could involve going forward with the referendum urged by Oswaldo Paya and the other petition signatories.

The alternative, says this source familiar with Castro's thinking, is to brandish a stick at the US by "raising the ante." He could unleash a flood of Cuban refugees in the direction of the US, thus creating a "massive migration crisis" in the midst of the presidential election campaign.

That is a prospect the president cannot afford to take lightly.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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