WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Since arriving in 1981, Georgetown University graduate student Erich De La Fuente has talked to his relatives in Cuba just once.
That was last Christmas, when he and his mother used an expensive -- and, in the U.S. government's view, illegal -- Canadian phone connection for 15 minutes.
A 1992 U.S. law was supposed to change that, allowing U.S. phone companies to provide regular, low-cost service between the United States and Cuba. But nearly two years later, the phone link is still dead, and an atmosphere of increased tension clouds its prospects further.
The problem sheds light on the tangled and growing debate over how Washington should deal with the Communist relic 90 miles from Florida.
For the present, President Clinton has chosen confrontation. Forced by a flood of boat people to reverse three decades of U.S. policy and deny them entry, Mr. Clinton billed his move as a refusal to let Fidel Castro export his economic and political problems here.
And to win support from fiercely anti-Castro conservatives in a divided Cuban-American community, the president yesterday tightened the U.S. economic squeeze on the Castro regime.
Cash to families blocked
Mr. Clinton ordered a stop to cash remittances from the United States to Cuba, effectively stopping Cuban-Americans from sending cash to families in Cuba.
Until the ban, they could send $300 every three months. U.S. officials said the order could deprive the destitute Cuban economy of as much as $500 million a year.
Family gift packages also will be limited to medicine, food and strictly humanitarian items. Transfer of funds for humanitarian purposes will require specific authorization of the Treasury Department.
President Clinton also limited charter flights between Miami and Havana to only those planes carrying legal immigrants. Up to now Cuban-Americans have been able to charter flights to find relatives in Cuba or check on property.
The administration hopes that the new moves will eventually force the stubborn Cuban regime to liberalize its economy and democratize peacefully.
But an increasing number of Cuba-watchers fear that the inevitable change in Cuba could be anything but peaceful and believe that the United States should adopt a strategy to head off a violent crisis.
In an essay last week, Bernard Aronson, who was the State Department's top official on Latin America in the Bush administration, called for the United States to hold out incentives to Mr. Castro in exchange for an easing of repression.
Mr. Aronson, writing in the Washington Post, expressed fear that Cuba's inevitable transformation could be "violent and traumatic" and wrote that instead of trying to prevent this, U.S. policy-makers "have been locked for years into a paralyzing impasse between advocates and opponents of the U.S. embargo."
His suggested carrots included a U.S. willingness to withdraw from its naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, assurance of no U.S. military intervention and relaxation of the embargo.
This view from a staunch anti-Communist who served in a GOP administration drew praise even from a conservative Republican, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, who said through a spokesman that Mr. Aronson's argument had "a lot to it."
It also generated quiet interest among senior Clinton administration officials, although they're worried about the domestic political fallout.
Castro can 'demonize us'
"It's right on target," said Joan Caivano of Inter-American Dialogue, a moderate Washington think tank. Even if the Castro regime failed to respond, the Aronson approach could prevent the United States from being accused of obstructionism. Now, "he's able to demonize us," she said of Mr. Castro.
The U.S. policy of isolating Cuba is losing support in the hemisphere. Harriet C. Babbitt, U.S. envoy to the Organization of American States, has warned policy-makers to expect a move within months to readmit Cuba, which was barred from actively participating in the OAS in the early 1960s. The organization's incoming secretary general, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, is known to favor a softer policy toward Cuba.
Washington's struggle to come to grips with a long-term Cuba policy is summed up in the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, which the Clinton administration takes as its overall guide.
The law attempts to heighten economic pressure on the Castro government while expanding people-to-people contacts between Cuban and U.S. citizens through regular mail and phone service and academic visits.
But the issue of mail and phone service shows the inherent conflict in this approach.
The Castro government has refused to allow mail delivery unless it is carried on regular flights between Cuba and the United States, but those are barred by the economic embargo.
For more than a year, U.S. telecommunications firms have been negotiating for the right to handle calls to and from Cuba. One, LDDS Metromedia Communications, thought it had a deal, only to have it squelched by the State Department.
At issue was the $4.85 surcharge on calls insisted on by the Cuban government. State Department officials say the surcharge would yield Cuba a huge windfall, boosting its hard currency and undermining the embargo.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College expert on Cuba's economy and an opponent of the embargo, says that Cuba would be more cooperative if the overall purpose of the Cuba Democracy Act were not to undermine the Castro regime.
"The stated objective [of the law] is subversive," he said.
The dispute leaves Cuban-Americans anxious. When LDDS, a Mississippi-based long-distance carrier, announced its phone service agreement with Cuba in January, it got hundreds of calls from Cuban-Americans eager to know when service would start, says its president, Bernard Ebbers. "These people are very emotional about that issue," he said.
Calling Cuba is not hard, if you know the number of a company outside the United States that will make connections.
But once such services become widely known, the U.S. government tries to block them because they say it violates the embargo.
U.S. policy-makers may soon be overwhelmed by more urgent questions as life in Cuba becomes more desperate and the regime more repressive.
Gillian Gunn, director of Georgetown University's Cuba Project, who recently visited the island, said she had "never seen more frightened faces" among human rights activists there.