IF he finally backs pending legislation to impose tighter sanctions on Cuba, President Clinton may find refuge from Republican charges that he has been coddling the country's longtime dictator, Fidel Castro Ruz.
But if the legislation antagonizes United States allies and makes it harder for American businesses to break into Cuba's lucrative, gradually liberalizing market, as critics say, it could end up hurting the US more than it hurts Cuba.
''If Clinton opposed [the legislation] two days ago because it was not in the US national interest, why would he accept it today?'' asks Robert Pastor, who heads the Latin America program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. ''It's not in the US national interest because it exacerbates relations with our closest friends and trading partners.''
Following last Saturday's shoot-down of two private US aircraft by a Cuban fighter jet, Mr. Clinton promised to reach agreement with Congress on legislation to tighten US sanctions that were first imposed on Cuba in 1960.
The pledge was part of a package of retaliatory measures invoked by the administration that included halting charter flights between the US and Cuba and limiting the travel of Cuban diplomats within the US.
Proponents of the legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, say it will administer the final blow to Mr. Castro's tottering regime.
''It should be clear to any objective observer that the policy of engagement with Fidel Castro has failed miserably and that it is time to tighten the embargo and isolate his brutal regime,'' Senator Helms said in a statement this week.
CRITICS respond that it is meaningless to try to isolate Cuba further since the island nation has trade and diplomatic relations with dozens of other nations. The attempt to do so, they say, could have the unintended effect of prolonging Castro's 37-year rule.
In the aftermath of Saturday's attack, lawmakers are rushing to reconcile the tough House version of the sanctions bill approved last September with a weaker Senate version passed in October.
The legislation would tighten existing sanctions on Cuba by barring the import of sugar and sugar products from countries the president determines has imported sugar from Cuba. It also bars American firms from selling sugar or any other products originating in Cuba and calls on the president to oppose Cuban membership in international financial institutions like the World Bank.
The bill's secondary-boycott provisions have drawn sharp protests from important US allies, including Britain, France, and Canada, all of which do business with and in Cuba.
US business groups say the legislation will make it harder for US companies to invest in and trade with Cuba. Though some US firms now operate on a limited basis in Cuba, significant investment opportunities in the fields of mining, telecommunications, tourism, and pharmaceuticals are rapidly being lost to foreign enterprises.
''The CEOs of virtually every major US company are saying that Helms-Burton will erect an even higher barrier that will make it impossible for US companies to do business in Cuba,'' says John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan business group based in New York.
With the Florida primary less than two weeks away, it will be almost impossible for Clinton to veto the Helms-Burton bill.
Hardest for the administration to swallow will be a provision in the House bill that would allow Cuban-Americans to sue foreign companies that have profited from property confiscated by the Cuban government. Critics say the provision will place huge burdens on the US court system and provide grist for Castro's propaganda mill.
The legislation ''will have the directly counterproductive effect of telling Cubans that if the Cuban revolution is overthrown they're going to lose their houses and farms, which gives them a greater stake in a revolution they've lost interest in,'' says Mr. Pastor.
At the root of the debate over Helms-Burton is the issue of whether coercion or commerce is the fastest way to usher in political change in Cuba.
''We have no influence in Cuba as long as we're not doing business there,'' says Dwayne Andreas, chairman and chief executive officer of the Decatur, Ill.-based Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, the country's largest grain exporter. ''If we want to have any influence in Cuba we have to open up and let the entire business community go there and trade, invest, and sell.''