Tough on Cuba

August 24, 1994

Want to know the cruelest action the United States could take against the Cuban rafters? Withdraw the two-dozen Navy and Coast Guard ships on patrol in the Florida Straits and let the sharks have at them! That would slow the exodus, and quick. According to some reports, such an approach actually was broached at the White House last week before President Clinton decided on the far more humane course of taking thousands of asylum-seekers to Guantanamo for safe-keeping as the Cuban crisis moves in unpredictable ways.

For now, the new Clinton policy of slamming the door on Cubans seeking to leave their blighted nation for the wonders of America has not discouraged boat people from leaving. They evidently find it hard to believe that benevolent Uncle Sam, after 28 years of open door, will not take them in. But wait. After the message gets through that Guantanamo rather than Miami is their almost certain destination, the current exodus may diminish -- as it did in the case of the Haitian refugees.

This certainly is the hope of the Clinton administration as it wrestles with still another unwanted foreign policy dilemma. Its action has been criticized by some observers who think it wiser to accommodate than to confront Fidel Castro. These critics fear that pressure tactics, now embellished by a crackdown on hard-currency remittances from relatives in the U.S. and threats of a naval blockade, could lead to an explosive situation in Cuba -- one that could cause bloodshed and an even greater mass movement from the island.

Granted, the deterioration of the Castro regime is dangerous, especially if the Communist dictator chooses to go down in flames. But the recent history of Eastern Europe suggests the transition to democracy need not always be violent and that maximum leaders, once considered indispensable if not immortal, often are ushered from the scene to the betterment of all concerned. The end of Castroism after more than a third of a century of despotic rule would be disconcerting, but even more it would be a deliverance for a population that today knows only deprivation and repression.

Having committed his administration to a tough course, President Clinton must see it through. Our allies should be encouraged to ban visits to Cuba by cut-rate vacationers who provide the Castro regime with hard currency. All humanitarian aid to Cuba should be prohibited unless it is distributed by agencies not connected to the regime. Cuban expatriates should start planning for the post-Castro era, not least by encouraging non-violent protest in Cuba itself. The return of Guantanamo to Cuban sovereignty should be held out as a reward to a democratic successor government, never to Communists pretending reform.

What lies ahead will in all probability impose hardships on Cubans, both those still under Castro rule and those interned at Guantanamo or other safe havens. But at the end of the road there is the promise of freedom long denied.

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