HE did it again.
Fidel Castro Ruz's capacity to confuse United States presidents has always amazed me. After moving up recently one final notch on his infamous power ladder to become King of the Hill among the world's longest-ruling dictators (after North Korean Prime Minister Kim Il Sung's death in July) he pulled it off one more time. Small wonder that the man whose ruthless regime has outlived eight US administrations was capable again of shrewdly transferring his problems to the north for his US enemies to solve.
The US-Cuba talks in New York on immigration issues produced nothing significant but heavy national and international exposure to the Cuba issue in terms not at all favorable to the Clinton administration. Mr. Castro had nothing to lose and much to gain. The balseros (refugees), an increasing headache for the US as it hustles to make room for more, do not rob Castro of one minute of sleep. He has the upper hand and found in this exodus his best card yet to push his own agenda.
Cubans fear Castro
Castro's decision to look the other way while thousands of rafters took to the sea in pursuit of freedom and a better life prompted Mariel II. Washington's reaction: We will not tolerate it. No US-registered boats will be allowed to travel to the island to pick up relatives. We will strike back with a tougher embargo and fewer dollars. Result: More than 20,000 rafters picked up by the US Coast Guard in the last month and taken to the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Moral: Cubans fear Castro more than anything else. They are not afraid to end up in Guantanamo. Anything is better than life in Cuba.
And what about the embargo? Totally irrelevant. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles expressed it best when he rejected a hint that the US embargo was partly to blame for the hardships of the Cuban people. Governor Chiles accused Castro's regime of imposing a bankrupted political and economic system on a country blessed with an ideal climate for agricultural production at a pace of several crops a year. He even anticipated that if ever Cuba recuperated its top agricultural shape after democratizing, Florida growers would be in deep trouble with the tough competition coming from the island.
Castro uses the embargo as a tool of anti-American rhetoric. It didn't affect him one iota back in the 1960s when the policy was fresh out of Washington and he was a top priority on the Central Intelligence Agency's hit list. He and his bodyguards rode proudly through the streets of Havana on big 1960 Oldsmobiles kept in top condition with parts imported through Canada. The average Cuban's traditional grocery list of basic needs hardly included goods imported from the United States. Chicken, pork, beef, beans, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and fish are all items that, under the right economic system, can be produced abundantly in Cuba.
Indeed, the embargo is a historically ineffective tool of policy that has failed in most of the countries and circumstances in which it has been applied. You can support it or oppose it. It matters little.
And the dollars? And the visits? While we grab our magnifying glasses to figure out and persecute these ants, a huge dinosaur is getting away, literally, with murder right before our eyes. After satisfactorily completing his mischief of opening the floodgates, the old comandante has retreated to his comfortable bunker to savor our 11 o'clock news on his satellite dish. He smiles impishly on his televised ``news conferences'' when he sees the havoc he creates on this side of the Straits of Florida.
The real losers in this latest political standoff between Washington and Havana are of course the balseros, the rafters who risk their lives - or perish - on fragile makeshift inner-tube rafts.
They know the choice: Is it Cuba under Castro, or Guantanamo under Clinton? Guantanamo, of course. At least for now. No dollars or family visits in Cuba? It's OK, they'd much rather reunite on this side of the Straits of Florida anyway. Give up their dream of immediate freedom and topple Fidel instead? That's a tough call, and it carries a heavy dose of immorality when it is demanded by those living a comfortable life in the US.
US needs new strategy
Despite all the barricade oratory and wishful patriotism from this side, the easiest way out of their misery is to take to the seas on rickety rafts and leave behind their long-unfulfilled dreams of freedom at home. No one should be outraged or surprised, knowing the 35-year-long record of repression and political imprisonment under Castro's rule.
The present crisis should be treated as more than an immigration problem for the US. It is a major political issue for the region and the hemisphere. As such, it demands serious strategy, not scurrying around in circles as the numbers in Guantanamo and elsewhere mount alarmingly to unmanageable levels. The time has come for the Clinton administration to formulate an effective strategy to deal with the man in Havana and tackle the real issue of helping Cuba democratize. Toward that goal the president should put together a good team of experts and advisers who have no political agendas and who are not locked in specific mind-sets of traditional tactics. The choices must be creative and open, not ruling out negotiation or military actions.
Castro must not be underestimated. The fact that he stands today as the last moribund vestige of the cold war doesn't take away the peril of his constant hostility. On the contrary, watching his appearance, live, on CNN recently, one could tell that he is the same man: same gestures, same style, same uniform, same rhetoric. The only two missing factors were the popular support he had in his early days and the Soviet protection that later became his shield and carte blanche for his mischievous international belligerence.
What will he do next? There's no telling. Especially now that he is not bridled by the Soviets. Let's not forget that this is the same man who 32 years ago would have blown away US cities had he not been stopped by Moscow.
A SOUND strategy to help restore long-overdue democracy in Cuba should involve the Organization of American States and eventually the United Nations. A consensus among other Latin American countries is important in presenting a united front demanding democracy in Cuba and a multilateral solution to the crisis.
A simplistic immigration agreement won't do it. The time has come for all responsible hemisphere leaders - some of whom have honestly but fruitlessly tried to persuade Castro to make democratic reforms - to treat the Cuban situation as a real crisis requiring an approach that surpasses the current futile and stubborn head-on clash between Havana and Washington.
Think Realpolitik, Mr. President. Think geopolitics. And think fast. Before the entire island's population ends up in Guantanamo on its way to Miami's Calle Ocho and Castro is off the hook for who knows how much longer.
The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.