WHILE the economic embargo has been the centerpiece of United States policy toward Cuba since 1959, granting automatic political asylum to Cubans fleeing the Castro dictatorship has been the second important component. The Clinton administration's May 2 termination of this preferential refugee status is a significant shift in our policy. It has also opened the door for a long overdue reconsideration of the embargo itself.
Few policies have been as enduring as our Cuba policy. Eight US presidents -- four from each party -- have sought to undermine Fidel Castro Ruz by denying him access to US trade and investment and welcoming those fleeing his rule, both to give them refuge and embarrass the bearded one. Our cold war against Castro outlasted the cold war itself.
Yet even before Attorney General Janet Reno's announcement that most of the 21,000 Guantanamo refugees would be paroled into the United States while Cubans picked up at sea in the future would be repatriated, there were signs that the broad bipartisan consensus on Castro was fraying. Prominent conservatives, such as William Buckley Jr., called for repeal of the embargo, while behind the scenes business leaders who saw their European and Canadian competitors moving into a market only 90 miles away were quietly critical. Recently a high-ranking military commander publicly suggested that the armed forces were not happy with US policy on Cuba.
In retrospect, however, it was last August's refugee crisis that triggered what is becoming a full-blown debate on our Cuba policy. Faced with the prospect of another Mariel in the form of thousands of fleeing Cubans being picked up by US Coast Guard ships and brought to Key West for processing under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the Clinton administration suspended access to the US for Cubans without visas.
Not only did an administration famous for waffling on key decisions back up its new policy by depositing 30,000 Cubans at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and informing them the only way to get to the US was to return to Cuba and apply for a visa, but the policy proved to be politically popular. In the November Republican sweep, it provided Florida's Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who had pressed Clinton to stop the flow of refugees, his slim margin of victory.
Clinton's Guantanamo decision, subsequently formalized through negotiations with the Castro government (which agreed to discourage Cubans from fleeing by boat), also revealed that the Cuban-American community was losing some of its political clout to the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country. Governor Chiles's Republican opponent endorsed the steps taken by Clinton to deter Cuban refugees from landing in Florida.
The May 2 decision confirms that Cuban-Americans no longer have veto power over US policy toward Cuba. While it was clear that they would welcome the release of the Guantanamo refugees into the US, they could not be happy with the administration's decision to return future refugees (or ''immigrants,'' as they are now known) to Cuba, nor the way the decision was reached. The administration neither consulted Cuban-American leaders as it had in August nor did it balance the decision this time by tightening the embargo.
Florida's Cuban-Americans were effectively out of the picture. Now they are scrambling to get back into it, but their demonstrations in Miami seem to underline how isolated they are, and the Clinton administration shows no signs of backing down on repatriations.
It is not clear if Clinton intended to set up the embargo for reconsideration -- I now believe that this was the administration's intention -- but the door is open for just that. Even before the reversal of refugee policy, Congress was preparing to hold hearings on a bill cosponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, that would strengthen the embargo.
With the embargo about to be placed on the table, it is important to review the options and evaluate each in terms of US interests in Cuba -- defined as promoting peaceful transition to a democratic regime that respects human rights, economic recovery for the island and its people, and resumption of US-Cuba relations. I see three alternatives on the embargo.
First, there is the Helms-Burton approach: Tighten the noose, primarily through a series of measures aimed at penalizing those nations, firms, and individuals who trade and invest in Cuba. The objective, in the words of a Helms aide I heard speak recently, is ''to bring Cuba to the breaking point.'' Their logic is that the only thing that keeps Castro's regime from collapsing in the post-cold-war era with no Soviet allies are the Europeans and Canadians doing business with Cuba.
Ironically, Clinton's closing of the escape valve to the US may hasten bringing Cuba to the breaking point. But a Cuban economist laid out another possibility for me: When the door to the US slammed shut in August, Cubans began to come to terms with the regime, something he said is made easier by recent signs of modest improvement in the economic situation. No one is predicting a full recovery.
At this point, either scenario seems plausible. However, the confrontational approach of the Helms-Burton bill would be less likely to produce a peaceful transition in Cuba, and it would certainly draw fire from our allies and trading partners.
The second option is to offer the Cuban government progressive relaxation of the embargo -- ultimately ending it -- as concessions for political and economic reforms. This ''calibrated response'' is official US policy as dictated by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act.
Over the past two years, Castro has adopted extensive market-oriented economic reforms. But so far these have not triggered calibrated responses from the US, nor has he taken steps to open the political system. Perhaps the new agreement on refugees makes it possible for both parties to become more adventuresome in testing each other's resolve.
The final option is to unilaterally end the embargo. Castro is no longer a threat, and we can discard our 36-year struggle with him as irrelevant to US foreign policy in the post-cold-war era. This approach might also hasten Castro's fall. Many observers, myself included, feel that he would not survive long in an atmosphere of open diplomatic and commercial relations with the US, especially if the initiative was not his. Imagine the disruption of thousands of American tourists arriving by car ferry from Key West and driving around the Cuban countryside.
The embargo has been around since 1960. It is important for Congress and the administration to broaden the reversal of refugee policy to include a critical review of the rest of our Cuba policy.