WASHINGTON — Three weeks after Fidel Castro ignited the Florida Straits refugee crisis by allowing emigration from his impoverished island, there is growing evidence that the Cuban leader is looking for a face-saving deal to call off the chaotic exodus.
Although Castro's publicly stated demands go far beyond anything President Clinton is likely to consider, experts who study Cuba, both in and out of the U.S. government, say they believe that his real objectives are far more modest.
The Cuban dictator has sent strong signals that he is prepared to stop the flow of raft refugees if the United States will agree to prosecute Cubans who make it to Florida in stolen aircraft or boats, increase the pace of legal immigration and restore permission for Cuban Americans to send money to relatives on the island.
Those would not be difficult conditions for Clinton to meet. Since the refugee crisis began, the U.S. government has already ended a three-decade-old policy of welcoming all Cuban defectors, which often allowed hijackers to escape punishment. Washington also has promised to facilitate legal immigration. And the ban on money transfers was imposed to punish Castro for permitting the unlimited exodus, so it would not be difficult for the Administration to lift the restriction if the refugee flow stops.
Nevertheless, decades of distrust and suspicion between Havana and Washington will make it difficult to hammer out a deal even if there seems to be little disagreement on matters of substance. For instance, Castro has made it clear that he wants the international recognition that would accompany direct high-level negotiations with the United States. But the Administration is unwilling to give it to him.
"Fidel Castro has shown absolutely no inclination to move toward democracy, and until he does, there is no need for dialogue," White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said in reiterating the Administration's refusal to open broad talks with Cuba.
Still, there may be more wiggle room in the positions of the two sides than appears in their public declarations.
With the two governments agreeing to mid-level talks on immigration, cover could be provided for wider discussions that might permit Washington and Havana to settle the refugee crisis. U.S. officials are hinting that the Administration might be a bit more flexible in its approach if Castro makes a show of goodwill.
"Castro's going to have to do a lot before we get to that stage," said one official, acknowledging that some accommodation is possible.
Clinton and Castro could be driven toward a deal by their own political weaknesses.
Clinton clearly cannot tolerate a prolonged refugee crisis that would reinforce public skepticism about his performance on foreign policy. If the refugee flow continues unabated, it could easily overwhelm available internment facilities. In addition, it will sorely tax the resources of the Navy and Coast Guard, which have assigned 46 ships, 35 smaller boats and 12 aircraft to rescue rafters in the Florida Straits.
Castro is trying to contend with a growing economic crisis that has clearly weakened his regime. The Cuban economy began shrinking in 1984. It has declined by almost 50% since 1989, when communism began to collapse in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, robbing Castro of his traditional patrons. No relief is in sight.
Moreover, Cubans rioted in Havana on Aug. 5, the first such incident since the 1960s. The disturbance was brought under control, but it showed that Castro's grip might be loosening.
Nevertheless, it almost certainly would be a mistake for either the United States or Cuba to try to wait for the other's internal problems to force concessions because both governments can hold out for quite a while. Castro can probably tolerate the refugee flow for months if he does not get the sort of deal he wants.
The refugee flow has not caused any security problems for Castro's regime. Cuban police have been able to keep order on the beach, and many of the refugees would be potential troublemakers if they remained in Cuba.
"Fidel can wait us out," one expert said. "Or at least we think he can."
"This regime is weaker, certainly, than it was in 1989," said Jorge I. Dominguez, a Harvard University professor of political science. But he said Castro's government has checked some erosion of its power by its "export of opposition."
Another analyst said Cuba has at least 1 million "surplus" workers, enabling it to sustain the present refugee outflow almost indefinitely.
However, the analyst said Castro would prefer an orderly departure of Cuban dissidents to the chaotic flotilla of rafts.
A 1984 agreement between Castro and the Ronald Reagan Administration allows 27,845 Cubans a year to travel to the United States as legal immigrants. But for most of the past decade, the departures have averaged about 3,000 a year.
From the start, Washington has considered the 27,845 figure to be a ceiling. Under U.S. law, the only people who qualify are those with relatives who are legal residents of the United States, and those with needed skills and a firm job offer from an American employer.
Castro has said that the "spirit" of the agreement calls for an annual migration of 27,845. Experts think Castro might hold out for a promise to increase that level as part of a deal to stop the rafters.