Tensions between the United States and Cuba are at their highest level in nearly a decade. The Bush administration has blasted Cuba's recent crackdown on internal dissent, while Cuba has accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs and provoking conflict that could lead to war between the two nations. Some observers are wondering whether Cuba may be preparing to unleash a mass exodus of asylum-seekers into the Florida Straits.
In the past month, Cuba has sentenced scores of dissidents to prison terms of up to 28 years and executed three men who led a failed attempt to hijack a passenger ferry to the United States.
The moves have prompted an outcry from the Bush administration, human rights groups and most recently the Vatican.
Late Friday, Cuban President Fidel Castro struck a defiant tone. The communist leader said harsh measures are required to protect the island-nation from U.S. and Cuban exile-led efforts to destabilize the country.
Mr. Castro said the arrest of several dozen mercenaries, who betrayed their homeland for privileges and money from the United States, and the capital punishment for common criminals who hijacked a boat in Havana Bay with guns and knives, were the result of a conspiracy directed by the U.S. government and the terrorist mafia in Miami.
He said Cuban authorities bear absolutely no responsibility for the situation. He went on to accuse the United States of a "sinister" plot "to provoke a conflict."
At the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban Studies, professor Jaime Suchlicki says no one should be surprised by Mr. Castro's actions.
"Fidel Castro has repressed the Cuban people periodically over the past 43 years. There have been periods of repression followed by periods of some tolerance, followed again by periods of repression," he said. "So this is nothing new. He does not like dissidents or people that oppose him. And no totalitarian leader accepts opposition or criticism."
Mr. Suchlicki says the Castro government most likely planned the crackdown long ago, but waited for an opportune moment to carry it out.
"It has come at a time when he [Castro] probably thought that world opinion would be more concerned with [war in] Iraq than with anything else," he said.
Cuba has complained bitterly that the United States encourages acts like the ferry hijacking by allowing all who reach U.S. soil to remain in the country, almost regardless of the means employed to get there.
The Castro government has also denounced a backlog of visa applications by Cubans wishing to emigrate legally to the United States.
State Department officials admit that this year the United States has issued fewer than 3,000 of the 20,000 visas promised annually under a bilateral immigration accord reached in 1994. The Bush administration blames the slowdown on new, stringent requirements for issuing visas mandated by the war on terrorism.
Dagoberto Rodriguez of Cuba's Interests Section in Washington recently accused the United States of attempting to create, "crisis conditions", by fomenting and concentrating dissent on the island. Mr. Rodriguez added that his government has no choice but to do what is necessary to ensure domestic security.
"We hope that the message the U.S. government will receive from this situation is that there are no ways to impose its will on Cuba," he said.
Mr. Rodriguez says the visa slowdown could provoke a mass exodus of Cubans taking to the sea.
Such talk has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the Bush administration sees the Cuban rhetoric as a thinly-veiled threat to open the floodgates of illegal immigration, should the United States take punitive measures against Cuba in response to the crackdown on dissidents.
In recent months, the U.S. Coast Guard and other elements of the federal government have updated emergency plans to deal with any exodus from Cuba that may occur.
But not everyone is worried. A spokesman for the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, Joe Garcia, says he doubts Bush administration will allow itself to be blackmailed.
"This administration is not going to go for the bait. This administration has basically said that disorderly migration will be met with orderly repatriation," he said. "This means that he [Castro] will not be able to threaten south Florida with hundreds of thousands of Cubans [taking to the sea]."
Fallout from the surge in tensions between Havana and Washington has been swift and dramatic. Two years ago, the United States eased its longstanding economic embargo against Cuba to allow the sale of food and medicine to the island. Embargo opponents in the United States had hoped the measure would be the first step towards dismantling the embargo entirely. But the Cuba Policy Foundation, a prominent Washington-based group dedicated to promoting closer ties between the estranged nations, has disbanded in the wake of recent events on the island. Members of the group have expressed shock and disillusionment over repression on the island.
One of the few remaining voices urging closer ties between Washington and Havana is Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who visited Cuba last week. "It is clear to me that the best course of action now is moderation, not escalation; engagement, and not isolation," he said.
University of Miami professor Suchlicki compares the crackdown on dissidents to purges committed by other dictators towards the end of their rule.
"This is a totalitarian regime at the end doing what Mao did in China, what Stalin did in the Soviet Union: eliminating opposition before the new generation takes over," he said. "So I think that this is a calculated move by Fidel."
Jaime Suchlicki says Fidel Casto is determined to protect his legacy by ensuring an eventual transfer of power to another committed communist: his brother, Raul. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Suchlicki argues, Fidel Castro chose to silence those who would most forcefully argue for democracy upon his death; hence the imprisonment of his critics on the island.