HOWEVER poignant their plight may be, the question is not how many Cuban refugee rafters can come, or where they can land, or where they must stay. The heart of the matter is when freedom of political choice and a free market can come to Cuba and make such boat trips unnecessary.
This is the drumbeat the United States should sound in its scheduled talks with Cuba on immigration matters. So far in the crisis, US policy has been reactive. As always, and as so many American presidents from John F. Kennedy to George Bush have learned, Castro the brilliant manipulator has taken the initiative - and the US is reacting on a day-to-day basis.
The US heads into the talks with a weak negotiating position on immigration. On the one hand US administrations have long underlined the failings of the Castro regime. But now that thousands of Cubans are fleeing their barren economy, the US has decided it cannot offer them sanctuary and is diverting them to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Some experts say it will cost the US a billion dollars by next summer to shelter the continuing flow there.
So even though Fidel Castro Ruz says he is now discouraging children from fleeing on rafts, the US needs his help to reduce the overall flow of refugees. The White House must negotiate with as much caution as it did with the duplicitous North Koreans. Mr. Castro will want American concessions. But on the eve of mid-term elections, and with his own presidential election campaign coming up, President Clinton faces a tough job in selling concessions to the million politically-significant Cuban-Americans, primarily in Florida, who take a hard anti-Castro line.
For Castro, the adroit orchestrator of international press coverage and public opinion, the talks offer an opportunity after a long hiatus to capture the international stage and dominate headlines, even though negotiations are conducted by others. Once again Castro will take on the American Goliath. Once again he will depict the US as the evil empire that thwarts Cuba's destiny. This has been the foundation of his political philosophy for 30 years, and one reason for his remarkable political survival.
The US should have none of it. It should take the political offensive. It should argue that it is not an American embargo against Cuba, but Castro's own inept management of an outmoded Marxist system, that has brought the Cuban people to their current despair.
What is needed is not the lifting of the American embargo, which would bring badly-needed dollars and goods into Cuba, prolonging Castro's tenure, but movement within Cuba toward political reform, freedom, and a free-market economy.
That is why the talks cannot get very far on substantive issues. To lift the American embargo, the US must demand movement toward democracy in Cuba. But democratic reforms in Cuba would mean the end of Castro. He will not implement the changes that mean his own political demise.
Probably the best immediate outcome the US can hope for is a deal cutting off the flow of rafters but accelerating the legal flow of Cuban refugees to the US. As one Cuban-American says: ``Better that their relatives should feed and house them, than have the American government pay.''
In defining longer-term policy towards Cuba, the continued leadership of Castro is clearly not in the national interest of the US nor, given the misery he has wrought, is it in the best interests of the Cuban people.
How has Castro survived so long? Partly due to charisma and cunning. Partly because of a pervasive security apparatus. Partly because he has successfully outmaneuvered a series of American presidents yet kept his people in fear of the American giant.
Yet in Cuba there has rarely been more open grumbling against Castro, including demonstrations by the people, than there is today. The US should make it clear that it sympathizes with such opposition, would support an alternative government springing democratically from it, and would not seek to impose a government of Cuban-American exiles seeking retribution against those Cubans who elected to stay under Castro rather than flee.
Mr. Clinton says his administration does not choose who leads governments around the world. It can, however, throw its weight in favor of government by democratic choice.