Pressure on Cuba is evolving U.S. is adjusting to changing times

June 28, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After three decades, cracks are appearing in the wall of tension between the United States and Cuba.

Shifting the focus of its last Cold War confrontation, the United States is moving to improve people-to-people contacts even while increasing pressure on Fidel Castro's dictatorship.

In the latest of these quiet steps, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher told Congress June 7 he would launch a review of U.S. nontourist travel restrictions worldwide, including travel to Cuba, that may open up more educational and cultural contacts.

On Capitol Hill, unrest is brewing over continuing American propaganda broadcasts to Cuba -- an appropriations panel rejected TV Marti, and a second committee tried but failed to shut off Radio Marti.

These changes do nothing to dismantle the rigid economic embargo aimed at squeezing the hemisphere's only communist dictatorship. Last year, with support from candidate Bill Clinton and then-President George Bush, Congress expanded the embargo to block foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. firms from trading with Cuba.

The measures to reach out to Cubans while squeezing Mr. Castro have the same goal: undermining the regime by building pressure for change from within. Indeed, the law tightening the embargo permits improved and cheaper telephone links and mail service between the United States and Cuba, as well as increased humanitarian relief.

These developments coincide with the increasingly evident fact that with the end of the Cold War, the U.S-Cuba standoff is an anomaly. The United States is moving slowly to open trade ties with former adversary Vietnam and has conducted high-level negotiations and held up the possibility of eventual normalization with Stalinist North Korea.

And with the lifting of sanctions against South Africa, no nation besides Cuba now endures an economic embargo for political or ideological reasons. Indeed, once trade with Vietnam is opened, the Cuban embargo will be the only economic sanction worldwide maintained despite outright opposition from America's major allies in Europe and Latin America.

Cramped economy

The standoff is perpetuated partly by the Olympian stubbornness of both Mr. Castro, under whom Cuba remains a repressive communist relic, and the voting bloc of Cuban-Americans waiting out the dictator's regime in Miami.

Already cramped by 30 years of socialism, the Cuban economy has been devastated by the cutoff in $4 billion to $5 billion in annual East bloc aid. But the Castro regime has chosen to let its population sink more deeply into poverty, malnourishment and disease rather than democratize and invite a lifting of the embargo.

On the American side, the anti-Communist political clout of Cuban-Americans, who have transformed Miami into a throbbing Latin metropolis, has kept up American pressure on Cuba even as the rationale becomes more tortured.

No longer does Cuba represent a Soviet foothold in the hemisphere, since there is no Soviet Union. It has withdrawn its troops from liberation movements in Africa and stopped trying to subvert other Latin governments. And it has expressed willingness to negotiate claims by U.S. firms to an estimated $6 billion in assets seized in the communist takeover, although its bare Treasury defies prospects for an actual settlement.

The remaining rationale for isolating the Cuban regime, stated by President Clinton on May 20, is that "Our administration seeks a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy so that all Cubans can enjoy the fruits of freedom as Cuban-Americans do today."

That's why, Mr. Clinton said as he affirmed support for a tightened embargo, "I was proud to join in supporting the Cuban Democracy Act, and why, as president, I still support it."

Political courtship

Mr. Clinton said this to applause from a crowd of Cuban-Americans during a White House ceremony May 20 marking Cuba's independence from Spain.

The event continued a political courtship begun last year that gave Mr. Clinton, whose sister-in-law, Maria Rodham, is a Cuban-American, about 20 percent of Cuban votes -- a big increase from the 5 percent Michael Dukakis drew in 1988.

Some Democrats argue that if he can increase his take to 35 percent, he stands a chance of pulling Florida away from the GOP in 1996.

"There's nothing inherent or natural about their being in the Republican Party," says a Democratic congressional aide with close ties to the Cuban-American community.

Mr. Clinton can't afford to lose any supporters right now. And the community also wields powerful and sophisticated lobbying clout through the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation and a well-funded political action committee that neither party wants to alienate.

Politics aside, even the administration's critics say Mr. Clinton is committed to the existing Cuban policy.

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