WASHINGTON — Washington -- U.S. Administrations trying to deal with Cuba are reminiscent of nothing as much as a man long accustomed to driving nails when suddenly presented with something so subtle as the principle of the screw: He just keeps banging away with his hammer. The Clinton administration is as bad as its predecessors.
Had the administration talked quietly with Cuban authorities weeks ago, it might have defused the increasing immigration problem by agreeing to such measures as the expansion of legal means of immigration and halting the practice of accepting without question any undocumented Cuban who arrived in the United States. But the problem has now reached such proportions that these measures could not solve it.
Rather than trying calm discussions, the administration flailed away with its hammer, ratcheting up the pressure and attempting to turn the problem back on Cuban President Fidel Castro, by saying the United States wouldn't accept any more Cuban refugees. With the emigration safety valve thus turned off, pressures on the island would build, to be vented by Mr. Castro's ouster. Or so it was reasoned.
But as anyone who knows Cubans well could have told the administration, the tactic did not work. President Clinton's announcement did not stem the flood of refugees. On the contrary, aware that Coast Guard vessels were now out in the Florida Straits to pick them up, the number of refugees increased. The flow may, in time, fall off somewhat, but it will certainly continue.
It is not inconceivable that several hundred-thousand Cubans will leave the island, undeterred by the fact that they will be taken to detention camps -- in Guantanamo or elsewhere. As a group of rafters said to me when I was on the beach in Cuba last week, "At least we know we'll be well fed."
I saw no evidence of Cubans being "pushed out," as the administration has alleged, or even encouraged to go. On the contrary, I saw Cuban policemen trying to dissuade rafters from setting out on their dangerous voyage. Other Americans in Havana witnessed similar scenes. But the police clearly have instructions not to interfere if the rafters insist on going. In other words, this is a voluntary outflow.
Earlier, the Clinton administration had condemned efforts to prevent rafters from leaving as a violation of human rights. But it now says failure to prevent departure shows, in the words of Attorney General Janet Reno, "a cynical disregard for the safety of Cuban citizens." Which way does the administration want it?
Meanwhile, the new measures taken by Washington to squeeze Mr. Castro -- cutting off family remittances and halting the charter flights -- may pinch a bit. Without question they will cause increased suffering for divided Cuban families. But they will not have any significant impact on the government. Certainly they will bring about neither Mr. Castro's downfall nor a decision to prevent the rafters from leaving.
So what does the administration do now, with more and more refugees on the way and little likelihood of Mr. Castro's quick ouster -- or change of heart? Essentially, there are three options:
* It can take the route of further escalation, eventually reaching the point of imposing a blockade or even invading the island. Anything to get rid of Castro.
* It can accept Cuban offers now on the table to begin a dialogue aimed at resolving this problem and, ultimately, all other disagreements between the two countries.
* Or it can bite the bullet; make no efforts to resolve the problem through pressures or dialogue, and reconcile itself to having tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees on its hands indefinitely.
Which option is the administration most likely to take? Nothing short of blockade or invasion will satisfy the right-wing exiles who now seem to be advising the Clinton White House.
On the other hand, perhaps cooler heads will recognize that the cost would be disproportionate. An invasion could result in hundreds of U.S. casualties -- and condemnation by the United Nations. We have no chance of getting international support for a blockade. On the contrary, if we want a real international crisis, we can have it by unilaterally halting French, British, Canadian and Russian vessels bound for Cuba.
But if the administration is unlikely to escalate pressures to the point of military action, it is even less likely to fathom the principle of the screw and begin a dialogue. That would offend the right-wing exiles to whom it is so mysteriously committed, and would represent too abrupt a reversal of the course it has followed over the past two years. The White House has already ruled out discussion of anything except narrow immigration issues. That is unlikely to change.
Hence, we are likely to be stuck with housing and feeding a large number of refugees for years to come, and facing a glowering stand-off between the United States and Cuba.
Given that the Clinton administration appears incapable of acting to end that destabilizing impasse, perhaps it is time for a group of hemispheric countries -- including, for example, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and Colombia -- to play the same role in this situation that the Contadora countries played in the Central American conflict of the '80s. Cuban spokesmen have said intermediaries are not needed, but have not rejected the concept of "good offices." Under this, the other countries could urge conciliatory steps on both sides and provide a forum where the two might begin to talk sensibly.
But most of all, they could make it clear to the United States that its crusade against Cuba is a relic of the Cold War, no longer acceptable to the international community. Everyone wants to see Cuba move toward a more open political and economic system, but this is no way to bring that about.
Wayne S. Smith, a visiting professor at the Center for International Policy of Johns Hopkins University, is the former chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.