Castro smoothly turns refugee exodus to political advantage

Fidel Castro's political adroitness in getting himself out of difficult situations has been proven over and over again in his relations with the United States.

And now he is proving it once more, this time on the refugee issue.

With his island in the midst of a serious economic crisis -- which is one of the reasons for the refugee exodus -- Dr. Castro has taken the spotlight off his own troubles and put it on the exodus and the US response to the refugee flow.

In answer to President Jimmy Carter's effort to bring some order into the refugee tide by setting up a broad evacuation plan, the Cuban leader last week said, in effect:

"Fine. But let's talk not only about the refugees, but also about the US trade embargo, the US-controlled Guantanamo naval base on Cuba's south coast, and US spy plane overflights of Cuba."

With this response, in the view of Cubanologists, he has thrown the ball back into President Carter's court. He knows that Washington is not inclined toward such broad negotiations. He knows Washington wants to limit talks to formalizing the refugee flow with the screening of Cubans before they leave the island.

Hence Dr. Castro has retained the initiative, the exodus continues without clear controls, and, in effect, US immigration policy is being set in this instance in Havana more than Washington.

Meanwhile, the flow of Cubans is diminishing slightly although in total it still amounts to a floodtide -- now more than 70,000.

US consular sources estimate that there are probably another 200,000 or so ready to come to the US. If they all were to come, that would be a total of between 250,000 and 300,000 Cubans entering in the current wave.

Cubanologists reason that in President Castro's eyes, this flow is safety valve, removing thousands of Cubans who are not necessarily supportive of his 21 -year-old government. And the arrival of this growing contingent of refugees causes tremendous political, economic, and socail strain in the US, giving Mr. Castro a hot political potato at a time when the US is facing other problems.

Although some commentators continue to suggest the refugee exodus poses an embarrassment to Dr. Castro, Cuban officialdom does not see it that way, and Cuba specialists are inclined to agree with this anaylsis. They say that far from being an embarrassment to Dr. Castro and the Cubans, the mounting emigration off the island dovetails into the Cuban leader's own plans.

It is not overlooked that Cuban officialdom and Cuba's controlled press have been suggesting for weeks that "a new Camarioca" would be welcome -- a reference to an earlier mass exodus of Cubans from the port of Camarioca, in which thousands fled in 1965.

Some US officials now admit that they did not fully read the growing evidence this spring that Cuba wanted to get rid of tens of thousands of people who were eager to leave the island.

They do not suggest, however, that the original incident at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, which saw close to 11,000 Cubans camp out in the embassy compound, was in any way stage-managed. But they see the incident as fitting neatly into Dr. Castro's thinking about those Cubans who wanted to leave.

In effect, he said: LEt them go. And in the process, he was able to cause a major problem for the US. Just how the Carter administration solves this problem remains to be seen.

In Latin America, the Cuban refugee tide is getting a good deal of publicity. But this does little to change the already evident negative view with which Castro's Cuba is held by many Latin Americans.

One reason Dr. Castro is not receiving much additional public criticism now in Latin America is that flow of refugees from one country to another in the region are common and often quite high. (The outpouring of legal and illegal emigrants from Mexico into the US, for example, is much larger than the flow of Cuban refugees into the US.)

In addition, many Latin American governments are keeping as quiet as possible lest some of the refugees head for their own countries.

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