Fidel Castro will not get the last laugh. In 1980, when he encouraged 125,000 of his resentful citizens to flee to the United States in the Mariel boat lift, he had the pleasure of watching the American reaction change from glee to dismay. Only belatedly did Americans realize the Communist dictator had exported a significant threat to his hold on power while causing wrenching domestic problems in the U.S. -- problems that helped defeat several incumbent politicians, among them President Jimmy Carter and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
This time, with Mr. Clinton in the White House, the Castro tactic will not be permitted. By reversing 28 years of Cold War policy under which Cuban refugees were given immediate residence in this country, the president is trying to increase the death rattles of the discredited Havana regime.
Mr. Castro will now have to deal with a citizenry that dares to demonstrate against the economic deprivation and political repression he has imposed on his island nation. He will be shown to be powerless to end the U.S. embargo or to manipulate the situation by exploiting his own weaknesses. No longer does he have the support and payoff money of the former Soviet Union. No longer does his ideology have much sway in a Latin America trending toward democracy.
Tough policy choices of the kind Mr. Clinton has made do not come without liabilities. Some members of the powerful Cuban-American community in south Florida are denouncing the Clinton move as betrayal by U.S. authorities who still cannot evade the moral debt incurred during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1960. Republican leaders eager to skewer the president wherever they find an opening are joining in this hoary cacophony.
But this is 1994. And important elements in the Cuban-American community sense that this is the moment to put ultimate pressure on Fidel Castro. The president has even been emboldened to serve notice that any American citizens who aid in the flight of Cubans will be subject to prosecution and the confiscation of their boats.
This is 1994 in another sense. The preferential treatment the U.S. has been giving Cuban boat people for the past 28 years has contrasted with official resistance to any mass migration from Haiti -- thus opening the administration to charges of racism by many home-front critics, including the Congressional Black Caucus. By sending Cubans to share the plight of Haitians now in indefinite detention at Guantanamo, Mr. Clinton may actually get better control of the Haitian crisis, with all its domestic implications.
At first glance, Mr. Clinton's switch on Cuba policy appears to be one of the more decisive and felicitous diplomatic moves of his presidency. No one can know how this explosive drama will play out. But in this instance, we can be sure Mr. Castro is not smiling through his beard.