Washington -- WE ARE NOT going to lift the embargo." Morton Halperin, the senior White House national security aide who was one of the authors of the administration's new Cuban immigration policy, told me again, "We are not going to lift the embargo."
Then he explained that the secret negotiations, to bring 20,000 Cubans into the United States from Guantanamo while at the same time closing off further uncontrolled immigration from the island, would not mean what many people thought. It would only mean that Cubans picked up at sea could then go to the American Interests Section in Havana and apply legally for emigration.
Well, historically what you see with Fidel is not what you get -- and this surprise new "policy," after a six-month review by the White House, is far more confused and ridden with contradictions than at first seems obvious.
Does the recent announcement really augur, as Sen. Jesse Helms and Cuban-Americans have angrily asserted, that this is only the first step toward a lifting of the 30-year bipartisan policy of isolating Cuba through the American embargo against trading with the communist island?
I don't believe so. The White House was under terrible pressure to do something about the 20,000-plus Cubans still moldering and smoldering in Guantanamo. The Pentagon feared not only 1) that riots were becoming inevitable there among the understandably restive Cubans but also that 2) if civil war ever came to Cuba, the American military would be pressed to intervene. (Lest this sound too implausible, a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine claims that 60 percent of Americans polled on the subject would have the U.S. intervene if there were civil war inside Cuba.)
And, so, the White House concluded, belatedly to be sure, that it had to defuse that dangerous situation. It is leaving the door open to future talks with Cuba; but the administration has shown none of the courage it would need in order to antagonize the Republican Congress. Many follow Mr. Helms in demanding to tighten the embargo to the point of allowing Americans to sue foreign companies doing business there.
What does this new policy do for Fidel Castro? Is it really, as many anti-administration voices are claiming, a boon for Fidel? No, again.
This promises to be the real summer of his discontent -- particularly if Fidel does not have the old escape valve of pushing Cubans to go to sea to relieve pressures on the blighted island (which his aides continued cynically to threaten.)
Because of last year's giant exodus to the United States, he lost a precious $100 million in canceled European and Canadian tourism. Charter flights were reduced from three a week to one a week. This year, the sugar crop is reported to be 2.8 million tons -- that is the lowest for Cuba since the 1920s. Moreover, other countries are also intent upon sending back Cuban refugees (Sweden, 900; Belize, 20). In short, the old escape valve ploy is over in this new anti-immigration world, and Fidel's answer has been to follow the Chinese model, right down to the pattern of day-after-day harassment of any who criticize the government.
Why then did Fidel Castro go along with the new agreement with the United States, which would effectively keep all but a certain quota of Cubans (who could leave legally every year) within this explosive Cuba?
The only explanation for his agreeing to this policy of rationalization of immigration is that he thinks this opens the door to a lifting of the American embargo (and, thus, also a lifting of bans against his getting money from international lending agencies).
So, in a real sense, both sides are almost surely dealing with expectations that are at least half-false. Meanwhile, two arguments dominate Washington thinking over that increasingly troubled isle, both of them also questionable: "Cuba will change through opening it to the world" and "Cuba will change only when Castro is overthrown."
In fact, the situation is rapidly taking on a life of its own. Surely, the Clinton people believe the immigration deal, as imperfect as it is, could lead to further agreement with Cuba on the fight against narcotics or an increase in official visitors between the two countries. Surely, too, Fidel is fully prepared, if there are not serious uprisings this summer, to raise the ante on the United States again, as he always has when he perceives a weak administration.
But beyond all of those correct suppositions stands one overwhelming reality that dwarfs all the policy nitpicking: Fidel Castro can no longer export his problems.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.