Uncertain about the condition of longtime U.S.
nemesis Cuban President Fidel Castro, the administration of President George
W. Bush said Tuesday it would not alter its policy toward the Caribbean nation
with which it has had no regular diplomatic communications for most of the past
"There are no plans to reach out," said White House spokesman Tony
Snow, who stressed that Castro's unprecedented transfer of power to his brother,
Raúl, should be seen as the latest affront to the democratic aspirations
of Cuba's population.
"Raúl Castro's attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is
much the same as what his brother did," according to Snow. "The one
thing that this president [Bush] has talked about from the very beginning is
his hope for the Cuban people, finally, to enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy."
Snow's remarks were the most definitive U.S. reaction since Monday night's
announcement that Fidel Castro, who turns 80 this month, had temporarily ceded
power to his brother, 75, pending a medical operation from which he is not expected
to recover for some weeks.
The announcement set off all-night celebrations in Miami's Little Havana, a
stronghold of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who have strongly supported Bush's
hard-line policies toward the island.
U.S. officials and independent Cuba experts alike spent much of Tuesday trying
to assess the news out of Havana and specifically whether, by transferring power
to his brother, Fidel Castro had initiated a succession process that was irreversible
or whether he would indeed return to power if he recovers.
"This must be very serious, because he's never handed off power before,
even for occasions in the past when he was ill or traveling for long periods
of time when it was clear he wasn't running the government day to day,"
said William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist at American University in Washington,
"At the same time, this may be an opportunity for him to have a kind of
dry run to see how well Raúl can step into the role of symbolic leader
of the revolution, as opposed to the guy behind the scenes who make the trains
run on time," he added.
That uncertainty, according to U.S. officials, appeared to be a major reason
for the administration's cautious response to events in Havana.
The transfer of power came just three weeks after the administration's release
of 93-page plan for transforming Cuba into a democratic state with a free-market
Among other things, the paper, the product of a commission headed by Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, calls for
the creation of an $80 million "Cuba Fund for a Democratic Future."
Under the plan, Washington would provide $31 million to "pro-democracy
groups" in Cuba and another $24 million on "efforts to break the Castro
regime's information blockade." The latter would be in addition to some
$30 million that Washington currently spends annually on television and radio
broadcasts to the island.
At the same time, it calls for continuing efforts to tighten enforcement of
Washington's 46-year-old trade and travel embargo, an effort on which the Bush
administration has been eagerly engaged since 2004, after a major crackdown
by Havana against scores of well-known dissidents.
The report also includes a secret annex that has been the subject of considerable
speculation regarding assistance to exile groups and possible covert action
to influence internal political developments in Cuba.
As to a post-Castro government, the report made clear that the administration
would only be willing to provide assistance if asked by a "transitional"
– as opposed to a "successor" – government which committed itself
to transform the country into a free-market democracy within 18 months.
A "successor" government headed by senior members of the current
government or the Communist Party would not be eligible for such assistance;
indeed, the plan defines Washington's goal as preventing a "successor"
government from taking power.
Critics of the administration's policy have long warned that such a distinction
may very well work to Washington's disadvantage precisely because it precludes
the kind of aid and diplomatic engagement that could be used to encourage reform
and liberalization as, for example, has been the case with Vietnam, another
"The U.S. has spent a lot of time planning for what really is the least
likely scenario, which is a rapid transition to a pro-U.S., democratic government,"
said Dan Erickson, a Cuba analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD). "What
we're seeing instead is a kind of gradual succession process where Raúl
is taking control."
"The best thing would be for the U.S. to re-engage Cuba, because there
are a lot of people there we should be talking to," according to Geoff
Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "I
don't expect the Bush administration to adopt that position at this point, but
it would at least be constructive if they let this process [of succession] move
To some analysts, the current situation underlines some of the disadvantages
of the administration's refusal to engage in Cuba, even in regular diplomatic
"The U.S. government should try to establish channels of communication
to the new government in Cuba, whether directly with Raúl Castro or through
intermediaries," Erickson told IPS, noting that the uncertainties created
by the succession could result in a new outflow of Cubans from the island. The
Bush administration ended regular bilateral talks initiated by the Clinton administration
on migration issues shortly after taking office in 2001.
Thale described what he called a worst-case scenario where anti-Castro Cuban-Americans,
believing that population is ready to be "liberated," try to take
boats to Cuba and are arrested – or worse – in Cuban waters.
"It's possible," said LeoGrande, "but you've got to figure that
the Cubans are on a heightened state of alert on the expectation that crazy
people in Miami might try to do something like that. In fact, I hope that the
U.S. is on the alert, too, and both sides are very much aware of the potential
for Cuban-American adventurism to provoke a serious conflict between the two
"Having regular diplomatic contact is a way of preventing misunderstandings
that could escalate into conflict, and it's especially important to have them
at a time of uncertainty," he noted. "And it's almost certain that
this administration won't do it."
(Inter Press Service)