US Awaits Its Own Transition to Review Cuba Policy

Despite Tuesday’s historic announcement by President Fidel Castro that he is retiring from public office, U.S. citizens must await the departure of their own sitting president 11 months from now before Washington’s nearly 50-year hostility toward the Caribbean island is likely to be reviewed. Even then, change is not guaranteed.

That was the consensus of all Cuba analysts in Washington who rated the chances of any conciliatory gesture by the U.S. toward any new Cuban leader – and particularly one headed by Castro’s brother Raul – while George W. Bush remains in office as virtually nil.

"This event offers a superb opening to refurbishing U.S. policy and our relations with Latin America, [but] I don’t see this administration taking advantage of that," said Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Indeed, Bush – whose Cuba policy has been dominated by efforts to tighten Washington’s 46-year-old trade embargo against Havana – told reporters in Kigali, Rwanda, that Castro’s departure "should be the beginning of a democratic transition" and demanded that Cuba now hold "free and fair" elections for a new government.

"And I mean free and I mean fair – not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy," he stressed, demanding, as well, that political prisoners be freed as a first step in any transition.

While Bush did not address his administration’s readiness to ease the embargo against Cuba in exchange for reforms by the new regime, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told reporters he couldn’t "imagine that happening anytime soon." State Department spokesman Tom Casey described Raul Castro as "Fidel Lite" and a "continuation of the Castro dictatorship."

"I really think we have to wait to see after Jan. 20 [when Bush’s successor will be inaugurated] whether a new president thinks there’s a tremendous opportunity here to do something new," said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, who has long advocated engagement with Havana.

Reaction to Castro’s announcement by the leading presidential candidates from both major parties, however, was not particularly encouraging in that regard – although statements by Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were significantly more forthcoming than the Republican frontrunner.

Republican Sen. John McCain largely echoed the administration. "[F]reedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand, and the Castro brothers clearly intend to maintain their grip on power," he said in a statement issued by his campaign headquarters. His statement – like Bush’s – failed to address whether Washington should be prepared to ease the embargo or engage the new regime in recognition of any reforms.

"We must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally; to legalize all political parties, labor unions, and free media; and to schedule internationally monitored elections," the statement said.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton, also called on the new government to release political prisoners and implement democratic reforms but stressed that it was up to Havana to make the first moves.

"The new leadership in Cuba will face a stark choice: continue with the failed policies of the past that have stifled democratic freedoms and stunted economic growth or take a historic step to bring Cuba into the community of democratic nations," she said. "I would say to the new leadership, the people of the United States are ready to meet you if you move forward towards the path of democracy, with real, substantial reforms."

She also stressed that she would engage "our partners in Latin America and Europe who have a strong stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, and who want very much for the United States to play a constructive role to that end."

In a much shorter statement, Obama echoed Clinton’s demands for the release of all "prisoners of conscience" and noted that Castro’s stepping down "is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba."

However, Obama was the only one of the three candidates to explicitly address the embargo, noting, "If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades," he said.

Indeed, of the three candidates recently rated according to their public positions on half a dozen facets of Cuba policy by the pro-engagement Latin American Working Group (LAWG), Obama gained the highest grade – a B, compared to Clinton’s D and McCain’s F.

While, like the other two candidates, Obama has voted to oppose lifting the embargo and a ban on private U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba without Washington’s approval, he has also taken significantly more-liberal positions on the question of permitting Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives there or send them money.

The candidates are particularly leery of alienating the well-organized anti-Castro Cuban-American community in south Florida – a key swing state in next November’s presidential elections – which played a decisive role in throwing the 2000 election to Bush.

"You can expect any Democratic candidate to tack more to the center, if not eve more to the right, to avoid the repeat of the catastrophe in Florida in the 2000 elections," said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba expert at the National Security Archive.

Indeed, prominent Cuban-American lawmakers were quick after Tuesday’s announcement to insist that, despite Castro’s announcement, any change of policy made no sense at all. "For now, nothing has changed in totalitarian Cuba," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

His colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who also serves as the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, echoed that line.

"It matters nothing at all whether Fidel, Raul, or any other thug is named head of anything in Cuba," Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that Washington should take advantage of Castro’s presumed loss of sovereign immunity by filing murder charges against him for the death of two members of a militant anti-Castro group in the downing of their plane off Cuba.

In a campaign appearance just last week, McCain appeared on the same stage as both lawmakers.

Most independent Cuba experts contend that Fidel’s formal departure will make a difference in Havana.

His resignation "is a signal that there will be more space for others," said Julia Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, who predicted that Raul is likely to promote reforms in agriculture and small business in ways designed to reduce the role of the state in the economy – a process that, during Castro’s illness, he had already initiated.

Raul’s stewardship has also seen the recent release of four prominent political prisoners, as well as a number of members – for reasons of health – of the so-called Group of 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003.

To many Cuba specialists, Washington should use Castro’s resignation as an opportunity to reach out to the new regime, if for no other reason, according to Sweig, than it "would get an enormous boost globally and in Latin America especially."

"Raul Castro has said now three times that he’s interested in talking with the United States unconditionally to try to resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries," noted William LeoGrande, a veteran Cuba specialist at American University and dean of its School of Government. "The Cuban leadership is in the process of considering some sign of economic changes, and it would make sense for the United States to be able to influence that in a positive way. You can’t have any influence if you don’t have any contact."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.