WHEN Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz threatened to open the door for discontented Cubans to leave for the United States, the leadership of Cuban American community here responded that a massive influx of Cubans must not be allowed to happen.
But when Mr. Castro did open the door and President Clinton responded on Friday by scrapping the 28-year-old preferential treatment Cuban refugees received from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it caught many in the Cuban exile community here by surprise.
There were demonstrations in the Little Havana sector of Miami on Friday and Saturday to protest the president's decision. Protesters carried anti-Clinton signs and placards that read ``Miami, Si! Guantanamo, No!''
The protests illustrated a split within the Cuban American community. While many were outraged at the new policy, leaders of the Cuban American community in Miami have consistently warned Clinton not to play into Castro's hands by encouraging an influx of refugees. In 1980, when Castro encouraged any Cubans who wanted to leave to do so, many Cuban Americans took boats to the Cuban port of Mariel to pick up their relatives and others. Now, while community leaders do not want Castro to use the exodus to quell internal pressure, many Cuban Americans are moved to rescue their relatives on rafts.
Thomas Boswell, a professor at the University of Miami who studies the Cuban American community, calls it the ``heart and mind discrepancy.''
The Cuban American leadership, he says, is being pragmatic. ``They realize the US cannot accept everybody. They know Cubans are treated better than everybody [refugees from other nations]. And they also know Castro is controlling the exodus.''
A poll of Dade County residents released by the Florida International University on Saturday show 56.7 percent of Cuban Americans support the president, while 86.4 percent of the non-Cuban American majority do.
Clinton announced that Cuban refugees will no longer be allowed into the US. They will be intercepted at sea and sent to the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to await for admittance in other safe havens. And as with Haitians, those Cubans who make it to Florida will be detained.
The president made the announcement after consulting with Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) and representatives of the Cuban exile community, including the influential Cuban American National Foundation.
Clinton's new policy was intended to discourage Cubans from leaving their country, just as a similar policy has slowed down the number of Haitian refugees. But initial reports from Cuba and the US Coast Guard indicate no drop in the number of rafters leaving Cuba. On Saturday alone, the Coast Guard picked 1,189 Cubans at sea, which amounts to over 9,000 so far this year.
On Saturday, the president announced additional measures against Cuba: Cash transfers to the island from the United States were abolished. Until now, Cuban Americans were allowed to send $300 every three months to relatives on the island. The money helps Castro to accumulate foreign exchange, the president said.
This latest confrontation with Castro started earlier this month, when a Cuban government-owned boat was hijacked by Cubans trying to flee to the US. During the incident, a Cuban Navy officer was reportedly killed. Castro demanded the return of the alleged perpetrator of the crime but the US refused.
CRITICS of Clinton's new policy say that not enough is being done to get Castro to give up power. If the US treats Cuban refugees the way it treats Haitians, they add, then Castro should come under a similar kind pressure that the US is applying on the military rulers in Haiti.
``If you're going to have a Haitian immigration policy for Cubans, you should also have a Haitian-style foreign policy for Cuba,'' says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, a Cuban American.
Analysts, however, say that the president's new policies are primarily a response to domestic concerns. Clinton aims to secure the support of Florida, which has 25 electoral votes, in the 1996 presidential election. Castro's government is in the process of collapsing, says Anthony Bryan, a political scientist at University of Miami, and it is not clear if Clinton can make it collapse faster.