Change Toward Cuba Likely to Come Slowly

Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader who ousted a military dictatorship to install the first communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, announced that he is stepping down as president, ending his half-century rule.
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Those hoping for a new U.S. policy toward Cuba have waited nearly 50 years for Fidel Castro to step down. But they will have to wait at least one more year, after President Bush leaves office, to see any possibility of change in the hard-line U.S. position that has transcended nine administrations.

Bush and his top advisers made it clear yesterday that they do not intend to relax the trade sanctions and other policies aimed at isolating the Cuban government. The president called on Cuba to begin a transition to democracy and seemed to belittle those advocating a new "stability" that would leave political prisoners behind bars.

"This transition ought to lead to free and fair elections -- and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy," Bush said at a news conference in Kigali, Rwanda, where he was traveling yesterday.

Perhaps a bigger question, in the wake of Castro's announcement yesterday that he is retiring from government, is whether Bush's confrontational approach will outlast his presidency, which will end next January. Substantial doubts in Congress about the efficacy of the U.S. approach continue to collide with domestic politics that give a heavy influence to the fiercely anti-Castro émigrés in South Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere.

In their comments yesterday, each of the top three remaining presidential contenders offered little sign that they will break with the pillars of existing policy, which conditions any substantial relaxing of sanctions and other carrots on steps toward political freedoms and democracy.

Speaking to reporters during a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said there is no need to change U.S. policy toward Cuba unless Cuba takes dramatic steps toward establishing greater freedoms. Otherwise, he said, a shift in policy could merely keep the old guard in power.

"I worry that we would extend aid assistance that would prop up Raúl [Castro] or any of his friends and comrades who repressed the people of Cuba for too long," McCain said.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) both held out the possibility of the United States offering incentives, but only if Cuba adopts democratic changes, something most independent analysts deem unlikely in the short term.

In a statement issued by her campaign, Clinton spoke to the new government of Cuba, which seemed likely to include Castro's brother Raúl in a major role: "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."

Clinton would reverse the Bush administration's ban on travel to Cuba by those with family members there. Obama, however, offered the biggest potential break with the status quo. Even before the Castro news, he endorsed lifting restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to the island or sending money to relatives, while also indicating that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of the country without preconditions. But his aides caution that there are limits to how far he would go in overhauling policy short of Cuba's release of political prisoners or some sign of democratic change.

"When he said he would talk to adversaries, he didn't say he would normalize relations with all adversaries," said Bill Burton, Obama's spokesman. While he could not say whether Obama would meet with Cuban officials in the first year of his term, Burton added: "He would certainly be willing to use direct diplomacy to advance our interest in democratic change on the island."

Brian Latell, a former top CIA expert on Cuba now at the University of Miami, said in an interview yesterday that while "all of the major candidates are unwilling to go out far on a limb with respect to policy on Cuba . . . that doesn't mean that in 2009, depending on who is in the White House, there might not be change" in the U.S. position.

Yet even if change is not emerging from Washington, it may come from Cuba.

Latell, who wrote "After Fidel," a recent biography of the Castro brothers, said Raúl Castro has indicated on at least three occasions since temporarily assuming power more than a year and half ago -- because of Fidel's illness -- that he would be open to engaging the United States. "There is a greater likelihood that a new Cuban leadership that is emerging may provide more inducements to officials in Washington," he said.

Lawmakers who consider the long-standing U.S. trade restrictions as counterproductive seized on yesterday's news to press their case. "The U.S. embargo gave Fidel a tremendous advantage in terms of lengthening his tenure," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leader in the drive to ease sanctions. "Let's not give his successor the same advantage by keeping the embargo in place."

But powerful voices continue to press for no change. "The question is not so much 'When is the U.S. going to change its policy?' The question is when Cuba will change its policy," said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, a co-chairman of a government commission on Cuba. "Fidel Castro is still running the show as long as he is alive."

But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a leading Cuban American voice in Congress, expressed cautious optimism that the transition may be more than "a passing of the baton from one dictator to another." He noted stirrings of youth protest and the Roman Catholic Church's call for economic change in Cuba.

"Right now, to act unilaterally would be an endorsement of Ra¿l," Menendez said, referring to the prospect of easing trade sanctions or allowing more travel. But he added: "We stand ready to work with a government pledged to transition to democracy. . . . There are opportunities to use calibrated responses to real changes."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report from Columbus.

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