ON Dec. 10 and 11, as Western Hemisphere leaders gathered in Miami to endorse regional free trade, United States troops were raiding a refugee camp in Panama that had earlier been the site of riots by Cubans detained there.
The irony probably was not lost on President Clinton. Yet neither he nor any of the other 33 participants at the Summit of the Americas was eager to get into a debate over Cuba and Fidel Castro, the only hemispheric leader excluded from the gathering.
Mr. Clinton can't stall any longer. After the summit, Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares announced that all 8,500 refugees in Panama must leave by March 6. Some US officials say the administration is no closer to a solution than it was when it first detained Cubans in Guantanamo Bay and Panama. If the US does not resolve the status of these refugees, more rioting is likely.
In Miami, Clinton said he and his fellow hemispheric leaders support democracy in Cuba. What he didn't say is that these Latin American leaders oppose the US embargo.
Clinton's problem with Cuba is not unique to his presidency, and a conservative Congress could make that problem more complex. If the US lets the refugees detained in Panama into the country (it has already allowed entry to the elderly, sick, and unaccompanied children under 13), there could be political problems at home, more Cubans may be encouraged to leave the island for the US, and the Guantanamo Bay refugees will have greater incentive to riot. At the same time, Clinton is faced with a strong contingent of Cuban Americans in Miami who urge an even tighter economic noose for Castro.
Despite pressure from this powerful faction, as well as opposition from some members of Congress, Clinton must do now what he should have done all along: Open up the lines of communication with Castro. The administration didn't take this opportunity in September, when the Communist leader requested talks covering a range of issues. And Clinton passed up a chance at the Summit of the Americas, where the discussion included topics such as fostering democracy.
Just as he is doing in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Clinton must take steps to include Cuba, rather than isolate it further and aggravate the refugee problem. The US has been willing to work with countries such as China, Haiti, and Vietnam. It is running out of options with Cuba.