Confident the exodus of Cuban refugees will ease, the White House turned its attention Sunday to Fidel Castro, pledging to maintain an economic stranglehold on Cuba until the dictator moves toward democracy.
Raising the distant possibility of a naval blockade, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said the administration does not see the migration of asylum-seeking Cubans as its only concern. "It's the problems within the Castro regime," he said.A day after President Clinton announced new measures to punish and further isolate Castro, the administration came under attack from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia said the policy is a stop gap, aimed at curing a momentary ill with no thought of the next step. "The level of benign neglect with Cuba has been clear," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., criticized Clinton's decision to increase economic sanctions, particularly by forbidding Cuban-Americans to send money home to relatives.
"The last thing in the world we want to do is make life more miserable in Cuba than it already is," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Since the president reversed course and closed U.S. borders to Cuban refugees last week, the White House has been rebuked for focusing too much on the exodus, and not enough on pushing out Castro.
Panetta said Sunday the thrust of the new U.S. policy is to "demagnetize" the border, keeping Cuban from fleeing.
"At the same time, we've got to continue to put pressure on Castro, because the problem here is not the problem of refugees, it's not the problem of migrants. It's the problems within the Castro regime," Panetta said on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."
"We want to see Castro move toward a democratic form of government, and that clearly is not happening."
Asked how much pressure a blockade would offer, he said, "That's obviously one of the options that we would look at in the future as we see whether or not Castro begins to make some legitimate movement toward democracy."
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Panetta was referring to blocking trade from other countries to Cuba. Although the idea is on a long list of options awaiting Clinton down the road, the officials said there was no active effort to implement a blockade.
Clinton said Saturday he was barring cash payments by Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba and putting new limits on flights between the United States and the island nation. He also pledged increased and amplified U.S. radio broadcasts into Cuba warning residents not to take to the seas.
There were no signs that the policy had stemmed the tide of refugees. The Coast Guard said it rescued 1,189 refugees from boats and rafts on Saturday and 678 by late afternoon Sunday.
Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat who pressed Clinton to stem the tide of refugees, praised the measures Sunday.
"I think the administration left it clear that these are the next steps. And if Castro continues to escalate, other steps could follow," Chiles told ABC.
"I think the next one would be a blockade," he said.
He said Castro has a record of opening his borders during times of internal strife. "We have got to make sure we don't allow him to stick us again," Chiles said.
Abelardo Moreno, Cuba's counselor to the United Nations, blamed U.S. sanctions.