CONGRESS and the Clinton administration are poised to reexamine a stubborn old US problem in a surprising new context.
The problem: what to do to hasten the downfall of Cuba's durable despot, Fidel Castro Ruz. The context: recent reforms by Mr. Castro that have put his island nation on a gradual course of economic reform.
''What you have in Cuba is a clear movement toward a more open economy,'' says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. ''The question is, what do you do to encourage Castro or force him to go further?''
The White House and some business-oriented Republicans say the best way to weaken Castro is to loosen the 33-year-old United States trade embargo on Cuba. But many conservative lawmakers say the time has come to make a final push against Castro and tighten the embargo.
The issue will be joined Monday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins hearings on draft legislation, sponsored by committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
Among other things, the Helms bill and a companion House measure, sponsored by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, would prohibit sugar imports from countries that import sugar from Cuba and deny visas to foreigners profiting from United States property confiscated in Cuba.
Mr. Clinton agrees with Mr. Helms on basic objectives, including opposition to Castro and support for democracy in Cuba. But Clinton officials say some of the bill's basic provisions are incompatible with other US foreign-policy objectives.
The bill, for example, would require Russia to dismantle an electronic listening post in Cuba, which is used to monitor US compliance with arms-control treaties. Without it, Russia may be reluctant to ratify the START II treaty or make further cuts in strategic weapons, Clinton officials say.
They also complain that a provision denying visas to foreigners profiting from confiscated US property could be construed so broadly that even small stockholders and investors in mutual funds could be in violation.
Cuba won't be isolated
The bill's secondary-boycott provisions have drawn protests from important US allies, including Britain, France, and Canada, all of which do business with and in Cuba.
The Helms bill will not isolate Cuba since it has trade relations with so many other countries. But according to the Inter-American Dialogue, the legislation would be the equivalent of imposing a 10-to-15 percent tax on the country by preventing Cuba from buying products from the cheapest source, the US.
Analysts note that on Capitol Hill opinion on the issue of what to do about Cuba is fragmented, not polarized as it was during the debate over whether to support antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.
''There are too many cooks here to come up with a very strong stew,'' says a senior policy analyst in Washington.
The Cuba issue has also highlighted divisions within the Clinton administration. Mid-level State Department experts have favored retaining tight sanctions on Cuba.
But Clinton's senior advisers favor cautious steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, a position that has antagonized conservatives on Capitol Hill.
''The advocates of capitulation are in charge of Cuba policy,'' says a Helms spokesman.
Clinton not waiting
In a departure from past practice, Clinton is willing to respond to economic reforms without waiting for Castro to make desired political reforms.
''We are prepared to reduce sanctions in carefully calibrated ways in response to significant, irreversible change in Cuba,'' Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman wrote last month to a House committee.
Clinton and Castro are ''backing toward each other,'' notes John Kavulich of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council: Castro by making small liberalizing concessions under the pressure of economic necessity, Clinton by pressing for more normal ties within the tight limits imposed by US public opinion.
The latitude for maneuvering was narrowed two weeks ago when the Clinton administration reversed long-standing US policy by announcing that Cuban boat people at sea would be forceably returned home.
The decision was widely supported by Democratic politicians in Florida, where most Cuban refugees end up. But it was hotly opposed by the lobby that represents the nation's 1.5 million Cuban-Americans and which is the main reason why the US is the only nation that still maintains an embargo against Cuba.
As Mr. Hakim notes, Clinton's decision ''removed another leg of Cuban exceptionalism'' by putting refugees from the island nation on a par with refugees from other countries.
The task of finding middle ground between the administration and Helms is likely to be made easier if, as expected, other congressional committees water down provisions of the bill, including the secondary boycott.
Congress is also likely to be wary of allowing Cuban-Americans who were not US citizens at the time their property was confiscated to file suit for compensation in US courts.
If what remains is a considerably weaker bill, Clinton could decide to strike it down.
''If the bill is weaker that means there's less support for it and therefore Clinton might be more prepared to veto,'' says the senior policy analyst.