Ismael Francisco/AP
Cuba's leader Fidel Castro and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro talk during the opening session of the National Assemby in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2012.

A Cuba beyond the Castros?

News from Cuba this week that Raul Castro will step down in 2018 is offering fodder for critics of US policy towards Cuba who say Washington is stuck in the Cold War.

This past week was uncommonly full of Cuba news.

At the top of the list has to be this weekend's selection of a new First Vice President in Cuba, Manuel Diaz Canel, age 52, the first person to occupy that post that did not fight in the Revolution. The outgoing First Vice President apparently stepped aside to make room for the next generation of Cuban leaders. Diaz Canel is presumed to be Raul Castro’s successor, a prospect made all the more clear by Raul Castro’s reiteration that this will indeed be his final term in office, as he promised in 2008 when he began his first full term as president.

Castro also endorsed term (and age!) limits for top government officials, and insisted that he will press ahead with his reform agenda. Two of the country’s five vice presidents are now women, and just one leader of the Revolution, Ramiro Valdes, remains.

Interestingly, Fidel Castro, who made a rare appearance at the National Assembly session yesterday and gave a wide-ranging interview to Cuba's Communist Party daily Granma earlier this month, does not exactly seem bowled over by his brother’s big change agenda, referring to the Revolution as the “change” that matters most. While the elder Castro assures this is all just a bit of fine-tuning, the consistent message to the Cuban people from the younger Castro now in charge is clear: Cuba is changing, it is (slowly) modernizing, and perhaps most important of all, that Raul Castro himself can be trusted to follow through – however slowly at times – with the reformist policies he endorses.

While there will no doubt be ingrained skepticism among many Cubans - and Raul Castro himself makes sure not to take it too far, promising no return to capitalism in Cuba, for example – many Cubans will see the leadership changes that took place this week as a sign that more changes still are on the way.

It’s thus jarring to see how disconnected US policy is from the changes afoot in Cuba today. As one of the Cuban government’s most vocal critics, blogging sensation Yoani Sanchez (who is now traveling in Brazil, thanks to Raul Castro’s migration reforms), put it: The US embargo of Cuba is “a fossil of the Cold War that does not have any sense in the modern world in which we live."

Talking about terrorism

This week in Washington, sparks flew around one of those fossilized elements of US Cuba policy, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba has been on the list since 1982, originally for its support of armed leftist groups in the Americas. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, whose patronage made such Cuban adventures abroad possible, the State Department has repeatedly admitted that Cuba was no longer providing such support. While many analysts have repeatedly called for its removal, no administration has dared take that step. And then there was this story out last week, which suggested the Obama administration might actually be preparing to take that step soon:

“There is a pretty clear case ... that they don’t really meet the standard anymore,” said a senior administration official with direct knowledge regarding US-Cuba policy who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have neither the wherewithal nor are they doing much.”

The Boston Globe, which cited “top US diplomats” in breaking the story, emphasized that no formal decision had been taken, and noted that Kerry was reviewing US policy toward Cuba.

But State wasn’t ready to be outed, and spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tried to shut down the story. “I saw that report. Let me say firmly here it is incorrect. This department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

“We review this every year, and at the current moment we – when the last review was done in 2012 – didn’t see cause to remove them. We’ll obviously look at it again this year, but as I said, we don’t have any plans at the moment,” she added.

That technically accurate statement obscures the fact that there is in fact such "cause" to consider with the upcoming review.  And by "cause," we really mean an action-forcing event that provides a timely justification for Cuba’s removal, rather than just admitting that we’ve had nothing on them for years.  That timely justification is the leading role Cuba is playing in new peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC rebel group Cuba offered training and support to decades ago and has since called on to lay down its arms. That group has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, and Cuba’s connection to it has been a key pillar of the US case for continuing to consider Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.

Was this week’s admission by more than one (unnamed) administration official a trial balloon? A message to Cuban authorities holding Alan Gross? Whatever it was, it seems to have been oddly managed, but nonetheless, the toothpaste may well be out of the tube. In a bit of particularly good timing, the Washington-based Latin America Group has just launched a petition to the White House seeking the removal of Cuba from the list. If they reach the number of signatures to expect a response, what will the White House say? If there truly is a real push from the State Department to finally de-list Cuba, whether as a means of getting Alan Gross back or simply because Secretary Kerry can’t abide signing off on something he doesn’t believe to be true, a White House petition coming at this precise moment might just be a handy way to continue to roll out infinitesimally nuanced statements that will pave the way for the real pivot in the months ahead.

Bicameral delegation to Havana

Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, made his second trip to Cuba in as many years, and this time brought several colleagues with him. News reports suggested the delegation lobbied for the release of American Alan Gross, who has spent more than 3 years in jail in Cuba for his involvement in a USAID program to set up wifi networks that could be hidden from the Cuban government. Leahy's bicameral delegation came home "empty-handed" but was the trip really such a bust?

Surely they knew – and Senator Leahy's comments after the trip seem to confirm this – they wouldn’t be bringing Alan Gross home with them. It is crystal clear that Cuba’s leaders are not going to respond to entreaties (or threats) on Gross’s behalf, without there being some kind of negotiation behind it. That reality is unfortunate, as it shoulders one man with the burden of 50 years' worth of government-to-government mistrust, missteps and recrimination. Of course, it also strains credulity that one country should send in paid agents of change into hostile territory and expect to pay no price for its meddling; it seems foolish to expect US laws and principles to hold sway over another government, especially one which we admittedly seek to topple.

The members of the delegation warned their Cuban hosts that the bilateral relationship hinges on the fate of Mr. Gross, something they surely felt they both wanted and had to do. But it mattered that they showed up and did it in person. The US may not be ready to make what it considers a forced swap (of Cuban prisoners in the US) for Mr. Gross’s freedom, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up. It’s a sign of respect for another country’s sovereignty (though not necessarily its policies), and in the tortured US-Cuban relationship, that makes a great deal of difference. Face to face talks will be the best chance Mr. Gross has at coming home.

Though we may not see tangible signs of it, the Leahy delegation was valuable step toward re-opening lines of communications with the Cubans, even if the two sides continue to largely disagree. And, given the substantial and sustained changes underway in Cuba, it’s important for US policymakers to get a firsthand look at today’s changing Cuba and our policies toward it. While our policy remains stuck in a Cold War morass, Cuba itself is undergoing meaningful changes. No longer are we talking about the 50 year old embargo reinforcing the recalcitrant Castro regime’s messaging. Now the conversation turns to how embarrassingly absent the United States is from the slow but historic metamorphosis we’ve long called for. The more Members of Congress who come to grips with both of those realities, the better for a more honest debate in Washington.

– Anya Landau French is the editor of and a frequent contributor to the blog The Havana Note

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