Havana's simmering caldron

WASHINGTON — EVERYBODY GETS nervous in a different way. Some people shake like jelly, some withdraw like Hamlet, some rage like Moses. Since he is a man of hyperbolic emotions, it is not surprising that Cuban President Fidel Castro also shows tension in his own way.

When he decided to close the American Embassy in 1961, he brilliantly turned the situation on its head. In truth, Mr. Castro had forced the United States out. But he presented it to the people on the second anniversary of the revolution as the United States arrogantly breaking diplomatic relations. How they cheered then!


In recent weeks, when he wanted to challenge the United States, once again he did it in his own unique way.

Cuba is falling apart. There is little food. Electricity is available for just six hours a day. For the first time since the mid-'60s, Cubans are rioting in the streets against the government. So, what did Fidel do? As usual, he blamed it all on the "americanos."


How he lambasted the malevolent U.S. immigration policy on Cuba. How he threatened to flood the United States with another Mariel (harking back to the 1980 boat lift of 125,000 refugees, orchestrated by him)! How, finally, he boasted that Cuba could not be expected to police America's borders.

Did I miss something? Or is it possible that what we are seeing is not some sudden rage -- and not even some real threat of a new Mariel -- but outbursts that are in truth pure Fidel?

You see, Fidel is finally in the hot water that his many enemies and critics have long wished for him. The riots in Havana show that the Cuban people are finally willing to challenge the regime. This utterly enrages Mr. Castro; yet he acts with total rationality.

And so the wily leader looks to us. What does he see? He sees a vacillating and vague American president, with no fixed foreign policy anywhere and with no will to use power. And so, just as he did in 1961, he blames the "americanos" for his failures, thus re-channeling the masses' anger against him to the United States.

Meanwhile in Washington? Suddenly in recent weeks, the phantom policy toward Cuba seemed to jump up and swipe at the administration.

Before these events, the Clinton administration said it wanted to nTC put Cuba off until after the 1996 elections (good luck).

Top Bush people told me early on that they had informed Mr. Castro that another Mariel exodus, orchestrated by Cuba, would be considered an act of war. Not surprising, Mr. Castro made no threats the whole four years.

But even when the riots were going on in Cuba this summer, the administration hesitated. First, White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said on television that nothing was gong to happen and the United States was taking no pre-emptive action. After a few days, while still hopefully reiterating that it expected no mass exodus of Cubans, the White House announced that, if there were, it had prepared plans to blockade the straits between Cuba and the United States.


In truth, this time around, the situation is different. Mr. Castro clearly wants a useful confrontation with the United States. At choice historical moments, it always takes the people's attention away from him. But it does not look as though he is ready for another Mariel.

For one thing, in 1980 he was able to manipulate the scene so that hundreds of Cuban Americans themselves sailed desperately down to Cuba to pick up their relatives (and all the criminals and mental patients that Castro interspersed with them).

This time, Cuban-American leaders in Miami have shown exceptional leadership, saying they won't fall into yet another of Fidel's traps.

Still, the overall threats of instability that are popping up all over the Caribbean -- Haiti yes, but also Cuba, the Dominican Republic, even Mexico -- deserve more than this random attention. If, somehow, this attenuated administration cannot come to some basic policy agreements down there, these problems, my friends, are only the beginning.

=1 Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.