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Castro Re-Aims His Sights on Threats

Shoot-down of US planes and crackdown on critics reveal renewed intolerance

WE'RE going to do things our way - whether the world likes it or not. That's the message Cuba is sending through a series of recent actions that have renewed its status among the last uncompromising Communist regimes.

For a time last year, Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz looked ready to seek better international and economic relations in part by beginning to address human rights concerns.

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But Cuba's shooting down of two private American planes Feb. 24 - and a fresh crackdown on political dissidents - says something different. Castro is making it clear he is not going to tolerate any challenge to Cuba's centralized, one-party system, Cuba watchers say.

The US insists the attack on the unarmed civilian aircraft, in which four anti-Castro Cuban-Americans were killed (see Cuban exile story, Page 4), took place in international airspace, a claim Cuba refutes.

On Feb. 26, President Clinton announced tighter sanctions against Cuba and his support for GOP legislation designed to toughen the economic embargo. The administration had previously criticized the legislation.

Castro Changes Tack on Openness

On Feb. 27, Cuba accused the US of railroading through the UN Security Council a denunciation of Cuba for shooting down the two planes from a US-based exile group. ''They could not even wait for the Cuban foreign minister to arrive in New York,'' said Miguel Alfonso Martinez, a spokesman for the Cuban Foreign Ministry. The Security Council statement that ''strongly deplores'' the incident was based solely on the US version of events without any investigation, he said.

The most controversial feature of the House version of the embargo bill would allow Americans to sue foreigners in US courts who ''traffic'' in property that Cuba has confiscated from Americans. Backers say the legislation will deter foreigners from investing in Cuba. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, has promised to move on it quickly.

Clinton also promised Feb. 26 to suspend air charter travel with Cuba and to use frozen Cuban assets in the US to compensate the families of the downed pilots.

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Just how much punch such measures pack remains in question. Castro is expressing new confidence in his ability to weather political storms, especially those rolling in from overseas. The world's longest-ruling dictator has decided his principal challenges are at home, analysts say, so he has put last year's campaign to shore up his international image on a back burner.

''The [Cuban] government decided it was never going to meet Western aspirations for political freedom in Cuba anyway, so what was the point in trying?'' says one Western diplomat in Havana. The crackdown is ''a sign they're refocusing on internal concerns.''

The two small planes were flown by a Miami-based Cuban-exile organization, Brothers to the Rescue. The group was founded in 1991 to search out rafters fleeing Cuba. More recently, it is suspected of buzzing Havana and dropping anti-Castro leaflets on the city.

The Cuban government has warned for months that it would take action against foreign aircraft ''invading'' its air space.

Even before the shoot-downs, the Castro regime was moving against its dissident community in a way that exasperated both international human rights advocates and Western countries, especially in Europe.

With potentially hundreds of Cuba's democracy advocates planning a first-ever, islandwide meeting Feb. 24, the same day the planes were shot down, Cuban police unleashed an arrest-and-harassment campaign that netted dozens of dissidents and effectively foiled the meeting.

Although few observers say the incidents are part of an orchestrated plan, analysts do say they reflect a determination by Castro to ignore foreign pressure and remove internal dissent.

The crackdown on dissidents ''sends the message he's not going to tolerate any internal dissent,'' says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin America think tank in Washington. And the Feb. 24 shoot-downs demonstrate ''he's going to be tough on anyone intruding from overseas.''

That Castro would act in disregard of US pressures - with embargo-tightening legislation pending in Congress and with Florida, home to most of the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, a key state in this year's US presidential elections - should surprise no one, Mr. Hakim says. ''It's a mistake to believe that Castro's decisionmaking process is designed in a rational way to encourage liberalization by the US,'' he says.

After visiting Vietnam and China last December Castro praised the two Communist holdouts for their ability to make economic progress while preserving their political systems. Castro may have decided he can do the same, some analysts say.

European officials say a meeting earlier this month between Castro and Manuel Marin, vice president of the European Union's executive commission, revealed just how difficult it will be for the EU to succeed in its objective of signing a cooperation agreement with Cuba.

Cuba is the only Latin American country that has yet to sign such an agreement with the 15-country European Union. The cooperation agreements include economic facilities and agreements to respect democratic and human rights. The European Parliament insists that reform of Cuba's Draconian penal code be part of any agreement. Diplomatic circles in Havana assume Castro's latest ''hardening'' could be as much an answer to Mr. Marin's insistence on these political reforms as to US pressure.

An uptick in the Cuban economy may allow Castro a margin for restrictive political actions, observers say. Cuba's economy plunged after the Soviet Union's demise and the loss of billions of dollars in annual Soviet subsidies.

But government and foreign economists alike generally agree the Cuban economy is looking up - largely because of increased foreign investment, booming dollar-earning tourism, and even an upturn in this year's sugar crop.

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