After Castro, help Cuba to a better way

The Bush administration is under scrutiny for its role Â- or nonrole Â- in the on-again, off-again coup in Venezuela.

Much more intriguing, however, is the role it may play in the transition of another Latin country of significance to the US. That country is Cuba, and the transition could well take place in the Bush administration's tenure.

After fainting during a speech in June last year, 75-year-old Fidel Castro indicated his successor in power would be his 70-year-old brother, Raul, who is Cuba's first vice president, minister of defense, and second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party.

Raul has carefully cultivated military leaders, who would play a formidable role in a succession regime. He has also replaced virtually all of the Communist Party's 14 provincial secretaries with new and younger incumbents he favors from the Union of Young Communists.

How this would change the Cuba that has been an irritant to the US for decades is not clear. On the one hand, Raul has argued for economic reforms, badly needed if Cuba is to claw its way out of its present economic distress. But whether these would be accompanied by the political reforms needed for Cubans to gain some measure of freedom is uncertain.

In recent months, Fidel Castro has mounted something of a charm offensive, intended to mellow Washington's hostility to his regime and the ideology it practices. The aim is to persuade the Bush administration to lift the US trade embargo, in existence for four decades. It is a key Castro objective, designed to help his ailing economy. Tourism to Cuba is down since Sept. 11, and so are remittances from Cuban exiles in Miami, many of whom work in Miami hotels and tourism-related industries, and who have lost their jobs in the US economic slowdown. All this, coupled with a cutback in Russian involvement in Cuba, has put a crimp in Cuba's foreign currency holdings.

The upheaval in oil-rich Venezuela must also be giving Fidel Castro some concern. Before the recent coup, President Hugo Chavez, a pro-Castro enthusiast, had been diverting some 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba at very favorable terms, to meet about two-thirds of Cuba's needs. With the overthrow of Mr. Chavez's leftist regime, that supply could have been in jeopardy.

Of course, Chavez is now back in power, but as one Latin American diplomat puts it, "he's been given the scare of his life. He's realized he made big mistakes, and he's promising to mend his ways." Castro must be wondering how this will affect the flow of Venezuelan oil to threadbare Cuba, where many citizens already go without lights and power.

Once, during the bleak days of the cold war, when Nikita Khrushchev shipped nuclear-capable missiles there, Cuba could have been a serious threat to the US. The military threat has waned but Castro's deplorable record on human rights remains anathema to most Americans, and especially to the dispossessed Cuban exile population in Florida, which lobbies vocally in American politics.

Various US administrations have made it clear that there is little prospect of a milder US attitude toward Cuba without some movement by Castro toward democracy. With Otto Reich, a hard-line Cuban-born diplomat in charge of Cuba policy at the State Department, that policy is unlikely to change.

On Friday, the Geneva-based United Nations Commission on Human Rights urged Cuba to grant its citizens greater political freedoms. The resolution was significant because, for the first time, it was introduced by fellow Latin American countries. Castro had campaigned angrily against such censure, even though it was couched in relatively mild terms. Few believe it will cause the immediate freeing of political prisoners and an early march toward democracy, but it is an indication of the region's increasing embarrassment over Castro.

Orderly transition in Cuba is clearly in the interests of the United States. Violent upheaval could result in loss of life, a wave of refugee flight to the US, and conceivably US military intervention.

But political succession to something that looks like more of the same, without any transition to democracy, is not particularly attractive to the US either.

Countries in Latin America, Asia, and some even in Africa have shown that the hunger of their people for a better, freer way of life can be satisfied without the massacre of thousands. The voice and actions of Latin nations could be helpful in persuading Cuba to find such a way. The Geneva resolution last week was a good first step.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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