February 27, 1996 in Nation/World

Clinton Imposes New Sanctions

Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

President Clinton struck back Monday at Cuba for downing two unarmed exile planes, but foreign-policy experts say the sanctions aren’t likely to make Cuban dictator Fidel Castro squirm.

Even as Clinton condemned Castro’s government as “repressive, violent, scornful,” Cuba stood defiant and unrepentant.

Ruling out a military strike and a naval blockade, Clinton instead ordered an end to charter flights from Miami, restrictions on Cuban diplomats on U.S. soil and the use of $100 million in frozen Cuban assets to compensate the families of the four downed crewmen, presumed dead.

But many saw Clinton’s salvo as a hollow gesture.

“The bottom line is this will have little effect,” said Max Castro, a Caribbean expert at the University of Miami. “It will inconvenience some people, but in reality these sanctions are very moderate.”

The sanctions already have fallen on unintended targets: ordinary Cubans; 2,000 stranded travelers in Cuba; and the exile community in South Florida still in shock over Saturday’s attack.

As Clinton met with reporters in the White House, Cuban authorities in Havana were holding a news conference, too. Throughout the afternoon, the briefings were shown on Cable News Network, allowing the world to see charges swapped by satellite.

Cuban authorities maintained that they shot down two Cessnas piloted by the exile group Brothers to the Rescue after they violated Cuban airspace Saturday afternoon. The fact that the U.S. Coast Guard asked to search Cuban waters for the bodies proves the planes crashed there, Cuban officials said.

Brothers and U.S. authorities claim the planes were shot down over international waters. But Cuban authorities said they have picked up pieces of wreckage from the planes in Cuban waters. They would not show the remains to reporters in Havana, however.

At sundown Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard gave up its search for the bodies and debris in the Florida Straits, sending its three cutters back to routine patrol.

There was little left to track, said a Coast Guard spokesman, Senior Petty Officer Luis Diaz, citing the graphic account of fishermen who watched one plane being blown out of the sky.

Cuba’s National Assembly president, Ricardo Alarcon, said the attack was justified because the exiles were on a propaganda mission to spread anti-Castro leaflets over Havana - as they have done twice in recent months. The exile group has repeatedly denied it carried leaflets on Saturday or flew over Cuba.

To support that assertion, the Castro regime wheeled out its not-so-secret weapon: an apparent doubleagent pilot who they say infiltrated the Miami exile group. The agent warned Cuban officials that Brothers’ planes would buzz Havana on Saturday to disrupt a national day celebrating the island’s communist state. Alarcon blamed the U.S. government for not grounding the exile group after their previous forays over the Cuban capital.

“Who is responsible?” Alarcon asked. “Us, because we made our laws and rights respected? Or those who, knowing who was violating their own laws and norms, let them enter and leave freely in their airplanes until the day before yesterday?”

The Cuban official shrugged off the U.S. sanctions, predicting they will have little sway with Castro’s regime.

“It just reveals the continuation of a policy of hostility against our country, that we face more of the same,” Alarcon said.

Noting Clinton faces re-election in November, Alarcon added: “If he thinks that by doing this, he’s going to win more votes, then good luck to him. … We have the right to be respected.”

A chagrined Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who had advised Clinton to act more strongly, was not surprised by Cuba’s swaggering response.

“I don’t think there’s anything here that will stop Cuba from escalating their campaign against human-rights groups inside Cuba,” Graham said, adding that the Cuban response to Clinton’s announcement was was likely “a deep, collective sigh of relief.”

Republican presidential contender Bob Dole said Clinton “laid an egg.”

Already, the effects are being felt in South Florida.

Clinton’s orders immediately halted flights between Cuba and South Florida. The charters carried an estimated 200,000 air passengers over the past year.

The action left 2,000 passengers of South Florida’s C&T; Charter Co. in Havana with no direct route home, said company president John Cabanas. The company, which had three weekly Miami-to-Havana flights, will have to arrange stops in another country, such as the Bahamas, before heading home.

For South Floridians teased by the prospect of investing in Cuba, the order put their hopes on hold. Clinton’s economic crackdown includes a legislative push for tightening the three-decade-old embargo of U.S. goods into Cuba.

“It will scare many more investors from continuing to operate in Cuba,” said Teo Babun, a leading business consultant on Cuba in Miami.

The Clinton administration’s measured response came because it was caught in a diplomatic bind, analysts say. Clinton needed to appear strong, but not overtly reactionary. And he needed to be tough on Castro, but not so tough that the Cuban dictator would again open the floodgates to Cuban rafters.

“The administration had a limited set of political tools available to them,” said Miami policy analyst Max Castro. “He (Clinton) went as far as he can go within those limits.”

The Clinton administration also worried that stronger actions - such as a military strike - would turn Cuban sentiment against the United States. In recent years, U.S. officials say, cultural exchanges have been broadening American influence to ordinary Cubans and creating an appetite for democracy.

To some critics, Clinton lost an opportunity to strike fear into Castro.

“We ought to have considered military options,” said J.D. Crouch, a defense expert at Southwest Missouri State University. “As long as we allow a totalitarian communist regime to exist 90 miles from our borders, we can expect these kinds of problems to recur.”

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