WHILE the Clinton administration is preoccupied by Haiti, a new crisis may be looming for the United States in the Caribbean. Conditions are becoming so intolerable in Cuba that the US faces a sharply increased tide of refugees.
Already this year the flow of Cubans to Florida has doubled. More arrived in the first half of this year than in all of 1993.
A series of recent events seems likely to accelerate this flow. In mid-July, the ancient tugboat, Marzo 13, chugged out of Havana harbor carrying 72 people attempting to escape and find freedom in the US. Aboard were 30 women, 20 children aged 3 to 10, and 22 men.
After 45 minutes, the Marzo 13 was seven miles off the coast. It was intercepted by two Cuban fireboats that turned their high-pressure hoses on the passengers. Two other fireboats arrived and rammed the tugboat, tipping it over and sinking it. From the sea, Cuban Coast Guard boats rescued 31 survivors. The other 41 were lost. One woman, Maria Victoria Garcia Suarez, told a Miami TV reporter that she lost her husband, her 10-year-old son, her brother, three uncles, and two cousins.
This outrage by the Cuban authorities has been little publicized in the US. But in Latin America and Spain there has been substantial publicity and criticism. The Spanish government has demanded an official investigation by the Cuban government.
Fidel Castro Ruz's regime is smarting. In an attempt to limit circulation of the story inside Cuba, it has increased its jamming of Radio Marti, the US government-run radio station that broadcasts uncensored news to Cuba. When Mrs. Garcia Suarez gave a follow-up interview in Cuba to a Miami TV reporter, she was arrested for spreading foreign propaganda. But uproar in her Havana neighborhood of Guanabacoa forced authorities to release her within 24 hours.
Reasoning that the authorities dare not risk an embarrassing repetition of the tugboat killings, many would-be refugees think this is the best time to escape from Cuba. Just last week, 78 people from the town of Nuevitas fled in a shallow cement-bottomed boat. Though shadowed for 15 miles by a frontier guard boat, they were not attacked. Also last week, nine teenagers hijacked a Havana harbor ferry boat and sailed it 30 miles out to sea before rendezvousing with a US Coast Guard rescue boat. They, too, were merely shadowed by a Cuban patrol boat.
``It means,'' says a Washington expert on Cuba, ``that if refugees think it's easier to get away, they're going to head for Florida in ever-increasing numbers.''
Conditions in Cuba are encouraging an exodus. The economy is fast deteriorating. This year's sugar harvest was 3.5 million tons, 20 percent less than last year's. This means it will earn fewer dollars in overseas markets for the Cubans to buy essential items, like spare parts, fertilizer, and oil, needed for a good harvest next year.
Cuba's subsidies from its former communist friends are no more, and its own capacity to earn foreign exchange is sharply limited. Thus ordinary Cubans face increasing shortages of food and basic goods.
Criticism of the regime is far more open today, despite surveillance by the authorities. Interestingly, the big July 26 anniversary celebration last week of the birth of Castro's revolutionary movement was held not in Havana, but on the Isle of Youth, south of Havana. Some experts speculate that this was to avoid hostile demonstrations. Although Mr. Castro was in the audience, he did not speak, as is traditional.
All this suggests an atmosphere of hardship and volatility in Cuba that could send a new flood of refugees toward the US.