Dealing with dictators and tyrants is not easy. Often, finesse is as important as any other foreign policy attribute. In that sense, President Clinton's decision to ease sanctions against Cuba has a timing element that could help the United States finesse a wider separation between Fidel Castro and the people he has repressed for 38 years.

If that happens, the easing will have been worthwhile.The president is allowing people in the United States to send cash to relatives in Cuba and is allowing direct flights to the island. The flights will allow humanitarian aid to go directly to Cuba rather than through a circuitous route involving a third country. In short, he is allowing conditions between the United States and Cuba to revert to the way they were before Cuban MiGs shot down two Miami-based planes in 1996, killing the four Cuban exiles onboard.

Has Cuba done anything since then to mitigate such a tragic act of barbarism? No, but Castro did allow Pope John Paul II to visit the island and speak freely about the need for change. The lifting of sanctions, then, is a reward for allowing a ray of religious freedom to shine after decades of darkness. However, it also is a way of showing the people of Cuba the United States cares about them and wants them to work to make the Catholic church a vibrant force on the island again, and that is the most important benefit to be gained.

The long-standing trade embargo with Cuba will remain, as it must until Castro either relinquishes power or allows his subjects basic human rights.

Unfortunately, Castro is not likely ever to change. While Clinton was announcing the lifting of sanctions, the United Nations was releasing a report showing the Cuban government continues to persecute dissidents and ban free speech. Until he stops bullying his people, Castro should never be rewarded with a lifting of the embargo.

The U.N. report also makes the ridiculous assertion that the United States shares some of the blame for this because of its rigid embargo. This seems to be a popular notion in many parts of the world. We have trouble following the logic. Any observer ought to be able to see that Castro comes up with evil notions all on his own.

How did he react to the pontiff's pleas? He turned up the heat of oppression. Clearly, if the pope's visits and urgings didn't stop him from terrorizing his citizens, Castro wouldn't likely have changed no matter how friendly and accommodating the United States had been.

As the all-powerful dictator, Castro has the ability to grant freedoms and rights to his people as he desires. He can't blame any other nation for conditions on the island. He alone must shoulder the blame. Clinton's relaxing of sanctions will help only if they help the Cuban people stand a little taller against their oppressor.