Caribbean Crunch

September 08, 1994

President Clinton's return to Washington finds Cuba and Haiti at the top of his foreign-policy agenda. His response to both crises -- and they are genuine crises on a short fuse -- could vitally affect the national mood as congressional elections approach Nov. 8. Inevitably Republicans will be worrying about an "October surprise" orchestrated by a Democratic White House. But the president's options are limited -- and unpalatable.

First, Haiti. Administration rhetoric would seem to have put the president in a box. Either he sends U.S. forces into Haiti, his advisers having declared a U.S. troop presence there "inevitable" and "certain," or he executes another embarrassing policy flip-flop. Neither choice would help. Better to wait.

Popular support for an invasion to overthrow the ruling military junta is minimal. And even if Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his bully boys depart peacefully into lush exile, a combined U.S.-international force is said to be required as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide again tries to rule his decrepit country. That, too, could be a costly adventure, with the danger of eventual clashes with unhappy Haitians.

Before the president flashes the green signal for an entanglement in Haiti, he should check with Congress. He will find the opposition often expressed in this newspaper widely shared on Capitol Hill. This skepticism has increased as a result of the intense test of wills now being played out by the Clinton administration and the Cuban regime.

The Sun supported Mr. Clinton's decision to deny Mr. Castro another Mariel boat lift -- another cynical assault on this nation's right to control its borders. We still do. Although Mr. Clinton has been assailed from the left for not rewarding Mr. Castro by easing the U.S. economic embargo and on the right for slamming the door on Cuban rafters encouraged by the Cuban dictator to seek illegal entry onto U.S. territory, the president has and should continue to stick by this course of action.

Cuban rafters finally seem to be getting the message that their destination will not be glittering Miami but a drab tent city in Guantanamo or Panama. Cuban diplomats are no longer insisting that the U.S. embargo be on the negotiating agenda. The talk is limited to the number of legal immigrants who will be processed for official entry to this country. That is all. And that should be all.

Yes, there will be pressures on the U.S. as Cubans now in unexpected detention turn restless. But the pressures on Mr. Castro are far greater. His is an economy that cannot sustain PTC itself without Soviet aid or access to U.S. markets and investments. The mass rioting in Havana Aug. 5 that set off the current crisis must be frightening to an aged Communist ruler who has seen his contemporaries fall in the old Eastern bloc. In time, if Mr. Clinton holds firm, Mr. Castro may have to give his citizens the promise of a better life by allowing democracy and free markets to gain a foothold.

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