WHAT important interests does the United States have at stake in its relations with Cuba? Strangely, this fundamental question has hardly been addressed in the expanding debate over US policy toward Cuba, which remains stuck mainly on personalities and tactics. Yet, without an answer, no sound basis exists for setting US objectives or choosing the appropriate means for achieving them.
The Clinton administration's recasting of policy on Cuban immigration, including changes last September as well as those this month, underscored one compelling concern -- to avoid any large-scale flight from the island to the US -- and may have opened the way for a broader review of US interests. The measures follow successive negotiations between the US and Cuban governments, and they should effectively deter any further mass outflows from Cuba, at least under present circumstances. The incentives for flight have been sharply diminished by the agreement of the Cuban government to prevent unauthorized departures, by the US pledge to return Cubans detained at sea, and by the proposed expansion of legal migration.
An important point should not be lost: Negotiations between Washington and Havana can produce results. And there is still much to be negotiated and resolved even on migration-related issues. For example, the US should be working hard to gain Cuba's agreement to allow an independent agency (like the Catholic Church or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to monitor the situation of the Cubans picked up at sea and returned to the island. The presence of a respected group of observers on the scene would not only contribute to safeguarding the returnees, but also help to settle disputes that may arise over their treatment by Cuban authorities, a needed function that should be welcomed by both governments.
The recent US-Cuban migration accords were significant in another dimension. Cuba is now to be treated more like other countries; its ''exceptionalism'' in US policy has been substantially reduced, and properly so. With its economic and military ties to the Soviet Union long severed and its economy in shambles, Cuba is neither a threat to the security of the United States nor much of a model of development for any other country. Its government is just one more repressive regime that resists democratic change. Beyond that, it merits no special attention or status from Washington.
No one should doubt that US interests and values will be served by a rapid transition to democracy in Cuba, and the US should not waiver in its support for such change. But it should also be clear that US national interests would be put at great risk by the outbreak of widespread or prolonged violence on the island during the process of a democratic transition. That would inevitably provoke a surge of illegal migration toward Florida. Just look at the flows of people from Central America in the 1980s and the rush from Haiti more recently.
Worse yet, a violent confrontation in Cuba -- whether civil war, massive military or police repression, or scattered rioting and uprising -- could well spark calls for US military intervention. Whatever the reason or whatever the scenario, any such intervention would be dangerous and costly for the US. Cuba is not another Haiti or Panama. Although the country's armed forces are smaller and weaker than when they had Soviet support, Cuba still has more than 100,000 well-trained and reasonably equipped troops.
The conclusion should be clear. The US needs a policy toward Cuba that, while it keeps us committed to democratic change, seeks ways to reduce the prospects of violent conflict. No US policy, of course, can fully guarantee a peaceful future in Cuba (or any particular future for that matter), but we can make peaceful change a priority goal and focus our attention on what has to be done to make it more probable.