Castro's exit may spur U.S. policy rethink

US-Cuba relations are unlikely to thaw anytime soon, but change may be only a matter of time.

Hans Deryk/Reuters
Still contentious: Several Cuban-Americans argue during a heated discussion in Miami’s Little Havana Tuesday, where many celebrated news of Fidel Castro’s resignation.

In the short run, Fidel Castro's apparent retreat from power is unlikely to have much effect on the long-frozen relationship between Cuba and its Yankee neighbor to the north. That is something on which a wide range of US officials and experts agree.

But the long run is another matter. Generational political change in Cuba is inevitable and Mr. Castro's slow fade, say some, might serve as a signal to Washington to begin thinking harder about what might happen when a Castro no longer controls Cuba's fate.

"Now is the time for the US to decide ... if we want to devise our own Plan B for Cuba," says Anya Landau French, an expert on Cuban affairs and senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.

After all, a long line of US presidents have been bedeviled by the icon of the Latin revolutionary left.

In the past, Central Intelligence Agency assasination plots against Castro included such bizarre plans as the planting of an exploding seashell in the area of the ocean where Cuba's leader regularly dived.

The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and prolonged the US economic embargo against Cuba, prohibits Washington from negotiating with any Cuban government that include Fidel or Raul Castro.

Some US-based analysts label the change in power a "phony" transition and argue that the US should keep existing policies in place. Raul Castro, who is taking the reins from his brother, indeed simply may be a younger, less dynamic version of Fidel.

"Neither members of Congress nor the American people should push to alter existing legislation or restrictions on trade or travel with Cuba absent signs of positive change on the political and human rights fronts," write James Roberts and Ray Walser, analysts at the Heritage Foundation, in a recently-released analysis.

But the announced change in Cuba's government, combined with the upcoming US election, means that a review of US policy toward Cuba is inevitable, say other experts.

Of the current candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois went furthest in his response to the events in Cuba, hinting that he might be open to changes in US policy if Havana made moves toward openness and democracy.

Incoming US chief executives always review important foreign-policy positions, notes Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. That might provide Washington an opportunity to take the initiative in regard with dealing with Havana instead of reacting to Castro's moves as it has in the past, he says.

"Why don't we say, 'We're putting on the table a set of conditions for the US to engage with Cuba in the future'?" asks Mr. Gomez.

The list of conditions might include a request that Raul Castro resign from leadership of the Cuban Army if he assumes the presidency, release of political prisoners, and greater freedom of the press.

Ms. French says the US can increase its influence in Cuba without ending the economic embargo. Washington might call for a dialogue on mutual security issues, for instance, including security around the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, cooperation against drug running, and in dealing with the flow of illegal immigrants.

The US could also loosen restrictions on travel, allowing Cuban-Americans more frequent visits to their native land, and on remittances to Cuba.

The US could also offer to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, which even North Korea has hopes of getting off of if it meets promises on its nuclear program. "Cuba doesn't have a bomb to give up," French points out.

None of these moves would require alteration of the basic Helms-Burton law, or even Congressional approval, she says.

There may be many Cuban officials who want to open their country up, said Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, at a recent Council on Foreign Relations seminar on the future of US-Cuban relations. But Mr. McGovern, who has traveled to Cuba a number of times on official visits, said the US should not discount the worries of these transitional figures that change is something that, once started, they might not be able to control.

That might even extend to the prospect of increased tourism. "I think the two words in the English language the hard-liners in Cuba fear most are 'spring break'," said McGovern.

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