LONDON -- Here we go again. President Clinton is facing both ways on Cuba. Is that the way to topple Fidel Castro? Anyway. does he need to be toppled?
A new onslaught by congressional anti-Castro crusaders seems to have persuaded Mr. Clinton to go along with a tightening of the unilateral American embargo, despite the fact that the Europeans, Latin Americans, Canadians and Caribbean neighbors punch holes in it, particularly now that the regime is rather more open to foreign investment. A tighter policy seems essential to ensure the Florida vote, with its large number of Cuban emigres, in next year's presidential election.
The "foliage of dissent"
At the same time, Mr. Clinton fears that too sharp a squeeze will promote a new refugee crisis, while also constricting his ability to loosen Mr. Castro's totalitarian grip by the free traffic of American scholars, student exchanges, journalists and non-governmental activists to fertilize ''the foliage of dissent.''
But why such a mix should topple Mr. Castro is unexplained. After 35 years, is he more vulnerable to embargo or fresh ideas than he was? America has become so single-minded in its Cuba policy that it forgets that the rest of the world doesn't go along with it.
Nor do most Cubans, whatever their disaffection for the regime, want to be ''rescued'' by Washington.
There remains in Cuba, despite the exodus of a large segment of the middle class, an enormous pride in what their country has done in the last 35 years.
This was a country that had never been truly independent until the revolution, and now has made enormous strides in education, health care, child survival and longevity.
There is pride, too, in Cuba's military role in Africa, particularly in repulsing white South Africa's attempt to win the Angolan war for Jonas Savimbi. And if there is resentment at the regime's ruthless suffocation of free expression, there is also support for its determination to keep Cuba from becoming a little finger on the big hand of America, even while it hungers for American markets and investment.
Of course, there is a counter current in Cuba that wants to see the end of a family clique's monopoly of power. Malaise has accelerated as Soviet subsidies have been withdrawn, exposing the inefficiencies of a state economy. While Cuban policy makers and academics debate whether to go the Chinese way and de-regulate the economy while maintaining political control, the populace just gets poorer.
So desperate is the government for a way out that it is playing the dangerous, once-forbidden tourism card.
If Cuba really counted for something, strategically or economically, it might be worth taking advantage of this growing weakness and crushing the Castro regime. But there's never been, even at the height of the Cold War, unanimity in the Western camp about this. And now that Mr. Castro is ''behaving'' himself abroad, there is even less. The Che Guevara posters are down and no one is inclined to stick them back up again.
The American debate over tightening or loosening the embargo is almost irrelevant; it's certainly not going to bring down Mr. Castro. The only thing that might undermine him would be a total relaxation of the embargo. Such a precipitous change could be, perhaps, destabilizing.
But who in the White House is going to dare that?
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.