NEWS ANALYSIS : White House Pressure Tactics Aimed at Castro


Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy and intelligence officials have talked quietly about possible scenarios for the downfall of Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime, which had long depended on economic subsidies from the former Soviet Union.

“How do you deal with the end of it (Castro’s government)?” mused one U.S. official last year. “Do you keep the pressure on or do you suddenly release it?” Another senior official suggested that an easing of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba might be a good idea, “not to perpetuate Castro’s rule but, in fact, to soften the landing of its inevitable end.”

Now, with the Clinton Administration’s sudden ban on accepting refugees from Cuba, the U.S. government has taken a series of steps that appear designed to bring about lasting political change in Cuba. The goal is to hasten Castro’s demise or, at a minimum, force him to open up his Communist regime. “What we need is movement toward democracy and a free economy,” the President explained as he announced the historic new policy.

On the surface, the Administration’s new policy looks as if it is aimed simply at stopping refugees. And that may well be a primary motivation for Clinton--who, as governor of Arkansas, was forced to call out the National Guard to stop rioting by Cuban refugees detained there after the Mariel boat lift of 1980.


But there is another, broader foreign policy component as well. Administration officials acknowledge privately that Friday’s sweeping shift in refugee policy was designed to make sure that Cubans who are unhappy with life under Castro stay inside the country instead of emigrating to the United States. The hope is that if they are in Cuba, they might work for political change.

The additional steps announced by the White House on Saturday--including restricting the flow of money Cuban Americans have been sending to relatives on the island and limiting charter flights to Cuba--make it clearer than ever that the Administration’s new policy is aimed as much at putting pressure on Castro as it is at stopping the immigrants.

“The goal is to try to encourage a peaceful evolution to a democracy with free markets,” one Administration policy-maker acknowledged Saturday in a telephone interview.

“We think it (Cuba) is a failed regime which is continuing political and economic repression, and which does not have the support of the Cuban people. . . . In general, we want to try to find ways to support independent groups in Cuba in any way that is lawful and peaceful, and we will continue to do so.”


Releasing refugees has, in the past, served as a safety valve for Castro, permitting him to maintain political stability by getting rid of those who might make trouble inside Cuba. By refusing to accept these people as immigrants, the Clinton Administration is now, in effect, trying to see if the nucleus of political opposition to Castro can be headquartered inside Cuba, rather than in the Cuban exile community in Miami.

The development of an anti-Castro opposition headquartered inside Cuba instead of Miami is a change that many U.S. experts on Cuba have been recommending.

“As long as the Miami exile leaders are seen as the U.S. government’s preferred alternative to Castro, there will be no political consensus in Cuba for change, no matter how much legitimacy Castro loses,” said Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist in Foreign Policy magazine last year.

Although the U.S. intelligence community believes that Castro is in trouble, it has not been predicting his imminent downfall. Last March, when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the question of Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the answer was a qualified yes.


“While the Castro regime has experienced serious economic pressures over the past three to five years, the regime has managed to retain political control and prevent the total collapse of the economy thus far,” Clapper answered in writing. “It is very likely that Fidel Castro will still be in power one year from now.”

But the Pentagon’s intelligence chief quickly added this qualification: “It is possible that the regime could miscalculate in its handling of events or a series of events leading to popular uprisings, which, if mishandled by the internal security apparatus, could escalate out of control.”

Now, the sudden new exodus of refugees from Cuba is apparently being viewed in Washington not just as a refugee crisis in Florida but also as an event that could, if handled right, lead to some sort of political change in Cuba.

All sorts of political dilemmas confront Clinton in managing a possible transition from Castro’s Communist regime to some other Cuban government.


For example, Clinton wants to refrain from antagonizing the leaders of Cuban American organizations in Miami, who could cause the President political trouble in Florida. Yet he also wants to avoid giving too much power and prominence to the exile groups, which could at some point stand in the way of efforts to promote a broad-based Cuban government that would enjoy popular support on the island.

“If it (Cuba policy) is not run out of Washington, it’s going to be run out of Miami,” warned one senior U.S. official early last year.

In the earliest days of his Administration, Clinton skirmished with Cuban exile groups--and the exiles won.

The new President tried to appoint Mario Baeza, a Wall Street lawyer who was born in Cuba but lives in New Jersey, as his assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs. But the leading exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation, opposed the nomination on grounds that Baeza had attended a trade conference in Cuba. They feared he would support an easing of the embargo against Cuba.


Clinton backed away from Baeza and instead appointed a foreign service officer, Alexander F. Watson, as the assistant secretary of state for Latin America.

For most of the past 18 months, much of the debate about Cuban policy has centered on what to do about the trade embargo. In private, some U.S. officials have argued unsuccessfully for an easing of the embargo, on grounds that it would help form a smoother and more gradual transition to a new Cuban government.

“The longer this goes on, the longer we wait for something to crack, the more like Romania this is going to look than, say, Czechoslovakia,” said one U.S. official. One of the worst scenarios involving Castro’s downfall, he said, would be “civil war on the island with a lot of people killed . . . (and with) Cuban Americans getting immediately involved.”

In late 1989, Romania’s Communist regime toppled with a sudden and extremely bloody coup against its longtime president, Nicolae Caeusescu, who was killed by a military firing squad. By contrast, Czechoslovakia eased peacefully to a non-Communist government when Party Secretary Milos Jakos and other top Communist officials resigned en masse.


However, those in favor of easing the trade embargo against Cuba remain in the minority within the U.S. government. The dominant view within the Clinton Administration, like its predecessors, is that the embargo will keep the pressure on Castro and hasten his downfall in a way that will be manageable.

“The underlying strategy is to convert economic crisis into social discontent, and then to give a political expression to that discontent,” William I. Robinson, a Latin America policy analyst at the University of New Mexico, wrote last year. “Such a three-step sequence--from economic crisis to social crisis to political crisis--is premised on permanent economic attrition.”

By clamping down on Cuban immigration to the United States, Clinton now seems to be trying to hasten movement along this path, pushing Cuba toward social and political crises.