TO anyone who has seen firsthand the pitiful makeshift devices that Cubans have used to drift across the Florida Straits to freedom, President Clinton's announcement that fleeing Cubans will be detained and perhaps relocated to a third country, rather than automatically enter the United States, is jolting.
Yet just as jolting is Fidel Castro's willingness - in the face of growing unrest at home - to encourage the largest seaborne exodus since the Mariel boatlift in 1980. By focusing security efforts on keeping more-seaworthy craft in port, Mr. Castro has left flimsy craft as the only option for refugees, generating television news stories of unquestioned courage and hardship that nevertheless paint Washington into a political and diplomatic corner.
Under the circumstances, the policy change the president announced Friday was the right call. It strikes a balance between finding refuge for Cubans fleeing repression and acknowledging the domestic political and economic costs of a potentially unbridled influx of refugees.
The new approach responds to several factors: Florida has received large numbers of Haitian and Cuban refugees but relatively little help from Washington in dealing with them. There are sharp memories of 1980, when 125,000 refugees arrived in Florida in a five-month period. And the change erases an inequity noted by advocates for Haitian refugees: Cubans escaping repression receive a far warmer welcome than do Haitians escaping repression.
The comparisons with Haiti apparently forced the administration to make another move: tightening the economic noose on Cuba. Several steps will be taken, but most notably Cuban-Americans will no longer be able to send up to $300 to family members in Cuba every three months. Unfortunately, by cutting this major source of income for Cubans, the president adds mightily to their hardship while putting little meaningful pressure on Castro.
Another approach is more likely to bear fruit: phasing out the economic embargo against Havana. The embargo loses credence with each set of talks with communist North Korea or Vietnam. Similar efforts must begin with Havana: Each step of political or economic liberalization in Cuba would precede a step in easing the embargo.
Cuba's regime cannot long outlast Castro. Change can come either in a violent upheaval, which could spawn a wave of refugees that would dwarf Mariel, or in a manner closer to that of Eastern Europe, where strengthening economic ties to the West and deeply-held moral convictions helped prompt, and soften, the fall of its communist regimes. By his action or inaction, Castro will chose Cuba's path; it is in the interest of the US to encourage him to take the more humane one.