LEADING ARTICLE : Keeping calm over Cuba

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The Independent Online
There can be no justification whatsoever for Cuba's brutal shooting down of two tiny unarmed civilian aircraft which may or may not have entered its airspace last Saturday. Yes, the United States has been attempting to topple the regime of Fidel Castro for 35 years. And yes, the incident was but the latest of countless provocative acts by the Cuban-American community in Florida, with the approval, tacit or otherwise of the US government. But no amount of understandable paranoia in Havana can excuse the destruction of the two planes, in violation of every accepted rule of aerial interception.

But what is done is done. The task is to prevent it from destroying what small progress has been made towards more rational, less hysterical relations between the world's lone superpower and the decaying, virtually bankrupt Communist island 90 miles off its southern shore. In a US election year, this will not be easy. The state of Florida is the fourth largest prize in November's presidential election. Traditionally it votes Republican, but President Clinton could carry it in 1996 if the state's large retirement community heeds his scaremongering about Republican plans to butcher federal healthcare schemes. Given Florida's complicated ethnic mosaic, the million- strong Cuban-American vote weighs a great deal. No wonder then that no White House aspirant dare be seen as "soft on Cuba".

Under these circumstances, President Clinton's response was about right - talking tough but wielding a very small stick. Wisely he has rejected hothead demands for a naval blockade, even retaliatory strikes against the Cuban airforce. Such steps would merely have cast Washington in its familiar, demeaning role of backyard bully in Central America. The ban on charter flights will hurt ordinary Cubans who have always been the prime victims of US sanctions - but not as much as the prohibition of emigrant remittances or a severing of telephone links between the two countries.

The other measures are mostly cosmetic. Sensibly, Washington is keeping its diplomats in Cuba, for now is not the time to lose any channel of communication and information. Unfortunately however, Mr Clinton seems to be ready to support moves afoot in Congress to tighten the existing economic embargo on the island, by imposing sanctions on foreign companies which do business there. This measure is not only probably illegal under international law, and certain to increase the hardships suffered by the Cuban population. It will also be self-defeating, by antagonising America's allies who have an economic presence in Cuba.

Each year the UN overwhelmingly rejects US attempts to push through global sanctions against Cuba. The rest of the world, with scarcely an exception, regards its policies against Castro as faintly absurd. The ageing dictator cannot have long left in power. After his death Cuban politics will change. The collapse of Communism in eastern Europe has left Cuba isolated. If the US can sponsor peace in Bosnia and the Middle East, how long will it take to get round to its own backyard?