The Embargo After the Castros

Raúl Castro in Havana on May Day last year.
Raúl Castro in Havana on May Day last year. (Pool Photo By Sven Creutzmann)
By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, April 6, 2009

The White House announced this weekend that President Obama would soon lift restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba. A bipartisan group of 20 senators has gone further, introducing legislation to repeal the nearly half-century-old ban on travel to Cuba -- a first step toward lifting the U.S. embargo on the communist island. Before proceeding, lawmakers ought to consider the words of Ricardo Alarcón -- a top official in the Castro regime and longtime leader of Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power.

In 1998, I had a revealing meeting with Alarcón in Havana. I was working for Sen. Jesse Helms -- then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a household name in Cuba thanks to regime propaganda -- and had gone to the island with my colleague Roger Noriega for the visit of Pope John Paul II. As the price of admission to Cuba, we had to endure a meeting with a low-level functionary in the Cuban National Assembly.

About 30 minutes into that meeting, Alarcón came into the room unexpectedly and announced: "I will now answer your questions." Alarcón had been quoted in U.S. media indicating his desire to succeed Fidel Castro, so we said point blank: "We hear you want to be president of Cuba." He waved his cigar dismissively, saying that all he had told the reporter was that if the revolution needed him, of course he would answer the call. We pressed: "But didn't Fidel just announce at the Communist Party conference that Raúl will succeed him?" Alarcón shot up in his seat: "No!" he declared. "All Fidel said was what is in the Cuban constitution -- that in the absence of the president, the first vice president assumes the duties of the president." But, he added with a smile, "the president serves at the pleasure of the National Assembly of People's Power" -- which Alarcón heads. He then held forth on the future of the revolution, referring to Raúl as a "brother of lesser historical significance," and named several individuals who would be better choices to serve as Fidel's successor, including rising stars such as Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque. (Raúl, if you need confirmation, check Cuban state security's recording of the exchange.)

After the meeting, which had not been on our official schedule, we stepped out of the Assembly building. A throng of reporters, including from Cuba's official Prensa Latina news agency, was waiting -- and asked about our discussions with Alarcón. We walked past them without comment. Moments later, Alarcón stepped out. He told the assembled reporters: "I am not going to exaggerate the affair. I do not believe it is easy to change people of a conservative formation. . . . But it has been a very respectful dialogue." The Associated Press reported: "A top Cuban official held a 'respectful dialogue' Tuesday with aides to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the communist island's fiercest critics."

This story -- the details of which have not been publicly shared before -- holds important lessons for today. First, Raúl Castro's position as Fidel's successor is by no means assured. That Alarcón would speak so openly and dismissively about Raúl to representatives of the enemy -- Helms -- speaks volumes about the lack of respect for Raúl within the Cuban hierarchy. Many Cubans told us that Raúl is hated within the ranks of the military and is blamed by them for the execution of the beloved Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa -- who led Cuban forces in Angola and whose popularity Raúl saw as a threat. Were it not for Fidel's protection, we were told, he would have been eliminated long ago. Raúl is trying to consolidate his position, eliminating rivals such as Lage and Pérez Roque, but once Fidel goes, the knives could come out for the "brother of lesser historical significance."

Second, as the competition to succeed Fidel and Raúl heats up, the coin of the realm will be who can bring about an end to the embargo. Cuba is one of the world's most repressive nations -- even within the regime, officials are afraid to speak to each other. With his news conference, Alarcón signaled the party cadres: I can sit down and have a "respectful dialogue" with the representatives of Jesse Helms. And if I can talk to the strongest supporters of the embargo, I'm the best person to negotiate an end to it.

The dumbest thing we could do today would be to enact legislation unilaterally lifting the embargo. Set aside questions about the embargo's efficacy. Like it or not, it is our only leverage, aside from our military, to affect the transition in Cuba. Why would we fritter away that leverage just as time prepares to do what the embargo could not -- bring about the end of the Castro regime? Fidel was never going to negotiate a loosening of repression in Cuba in exchange for a lifting of the travel ban and other trade restrictions. But those who succeed him will, and the Castro brothers will soon be gone. The question is: When that happens, what power will the United States have to encourage a democratic transition on the island? Instead of strengthening Raúl by lifting the embargo now, we should keep our powder dry and use it to strengthen democracy and influence his successor. The embargo has been in place for 47 years -- at this point, it would be foolish not to wait a little longer.

The writer, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001, is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in senior positions in the Pentagon and the White House from 2001 to 2009.

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