Why Are Cubans Fleeing Now? Blame Tightened US Sanctions

Clinton made a '92 campaign deal with Cuban-Americans

THREE Cuba stories are unfolding before our eyes.

First is the heart-stopping tragedy of human beings reduced to such desperate misery that they are willing to risk death on the high seas and detention ashore rather than remain in their homeland.

Second is the daily erosion of the moral and political authority of President Fidel Castro Ruz, an irreversible process that will end only with his departure from office.

Third is the United States apparent pursuit of a policy strongly influenced by domestic political considerations, one that appears to be exacerbating the human disaster while providing the US with what critics claim is little leverage on Cuba's political transition. The evolution of this policy was well chronicled by both the print and electronic media beginning with its formation during the 1992 presidential campaign.

There are two states where emigres from Cuba play a con-sequential role in state politics, and both - Florida and New Jersey - are bitterly contested during the presidential primary and general election campaigns. The most powerful voice in Cuban-American affairs is businessman, Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the powerful Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) and, through its ``Free Cuba PAC,'' a hefty contributor to US political campaigns.

During the campaign, at the reported urging of Mr. Mas Canosa, Florida Sen. (then governor) Bob Graham (D) and New Jersey Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) introduced the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act. Among other provisions, it tightened the long-standing US economic embargo against Havana by forbidding trade by foreign subsidiaries of US corporations and making it harder for other nations to ship goods to Cuba and the US.

The bill was opposed by US multinationals, every significant US trading partner, most other nations, many of this country's leading newspapers, and the Bush administration. But in April 1992, Bill Clinton struck what the Boston Globe termed a ``Faustian bargain'' with CANF, telling the audience at a fund-raising dinner sponsored by the organization, ``I have read the Torricelli-Graham bill and I like it.'' According to a report the following year in The Progressive magazine, Mr. Clinton shortly thereafter received $275,000 in campaign contributions triggered by CANF.

Outflanked on his right by Clinton among Cuban-Americans, President Bush promptly changed his position on the bill. A hefty congressional majority then voted the bill into law, apparently persuaded by its sponsors that by tightening the screws on Mr. Castro it would hasten the birth of democracy in Cuba. Others may have been motivated by provisions expanding the range of potential US contacts with the Cuban government and people.

The Clinton administration has enforced the embargo strictly, with devastating consequences for the Cuban economy. According to visitors, the act has further curtailed Cuba's foreign trade, reduced imports of consumer goods, food, and medicine, driven up unemployment, and generally increased the misery quotient to the point where, given the opportunity to flee, thousands risk death for themselves and their families.

The policy was condemned last year by a vote in the United Nations General Assembly which, with only the US, Israel, and Romania dissenting, urged an end to the embargo.

The measure is, ironically, far more draconian than anything ever imposed even on such major foes as China and the Soviet Union during the cold war. Nor was it deemed necessary by US administrations during the years Castro was placing Soviet nuclear missiles on his soil, hosting one of Moscow's combat brigades, sending troops to Angola, or seeking to foment communist revolution in Central and South America.

Only now when his regime is beginning to totter, when it has lost outside benefactors, when, by necessity, it has cut military spending and withdrawn from outside adventures - and when the first shudders of what will surely be a political earthquake are being felt - is the US taking its toughest stance ever.

But tough against whom? Castro appears to face no short-term danger of ouster. The Cuban military continues to wield considerable influence. As in Haiti, US actions appear to be making the have-nots suffer for the sins of their oppressors, driving the victims to desperate escape efforts and then shutting down their escape route.

Diplomats and others who have spent professional lifetimes studying revolutionary societies are nearly unanimous in suggesting that better options to the current policy are available. Most believe that history has about run its course on Castro's brand of communism.

While the White House insists there is nothing to discuss with Castro at this time, others, such as Bernard Aronson, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, see his regime amenable to outside engagement. By taking positive steps now, they argue, the US could put itself in position to influence the pace of change and ultimately the shape of the new Cuba.

Even in crassly political terms, the current policy is likely to prove bankrupt. Few Cuban-Americans are likely to enter the voting booths in November with ``Gracias, Senor Presidente'' in their hearts while their loved ones suffer in Havana, perish at sea, or languish at ``Camp Clinton'' in Guantanamo Bay.

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