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
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,"
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
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
"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
"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)