PRESIDENT CLINTON's substantive response to Cuba's latest outrage -- the shooting down of two unarmed civilian planes whose only "bombs" were leaflets calling for freedom -- was more restrained than his rhetoric. He ordered no military action, imposed no naval blockade, kept telephone lines open and did not shut off the money sent by exiles to families in Cuba.
Yet some action was imperative. No self-respecting country can permit the blatant murder of four of its citizens to go unpunished. No self-respecting leader can permit himself to be shown without recourse.
Fidel Castro's latest crime, when combined with his recent crackdown on dissenters, erases what had been a favorable trend in U.S-Cuban relations. It also could short-circuit some of his efforts to replace the loss of Soviet-era economic aid with increasing trade ties with Europe.
It is true enough that those involved in Saturday's incident were provocateurs in the business of pulling Fidel's beard. They were members of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based organization formed to rescue boat people fleeing Cuba. But since Mr. Clinton's policy of forced repatriation stopped much of that exodus, the group has violated Cuban air space several times to drop freedom leaflets despite U.S. pleas to desist. This evidently was the intent when they flew toward Havana during their ill-fated mission.
The Cuban retaliation was far out of proportion to the provocation and in clear violation of international strictures against firing at unarmed aircraft. As a result, Mr. Clinton rightly reversed his order of last October easing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. He will stop U.S. charter flights. He will compensate the families of those killed by Cuban jet fighters out of frozen Cuban assets in the U.S. He will expand the reach of Radio Marti. And he even will work with Congress to see if some version of the Helms-Burton bill tightening the economic embargo on Cuba can be passed.
One provision in that measure permitting Cuban-Americans and others to flood federal courts with suits seeking compensation from third-country investors who have purchased properties confiscated by the Castro regime should remain veto-bait. It would serve only to increase the impatience of other nations with the U.S. obsession with Cuba. Yet some tightening of the embargo now seems a political necessity, even though the more prudent long-range course would be to create the personal and economic ties needed for the inevitable transition to a post-Castro era.