Cuba, Si Yanks, No

U.S. looks toward post-Castro Cuban era, but history of mistakes likely to limit role


For most ordinary mortals, the celebration of an 80th birthday would be little more than a sobering milestone.

But for those following the remarkable life and seemingly endless rule of Fidel Castro, who becomes an octogenarian today, his descent into frail old age has significance far beyond the boundaries of his beloved Cuba.

The recent news that an ailing Castro, the world's longest-serving dictator, had "temporarily" handed over the reins of power to his brother, Raul, sent reverberations through the Western hemisphere.

In a region long accustomed to Fidel's somewhat eccentric presence, his potential absence has prompted a world of speculation about Cuba's future, a future in which, ironically, the United States now appears likely to have far less influence than it might like.

Having imposed a full trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, successive U.S. governments have made themselves incapable of influencing the future course of Cuba's fortunes, despite its location just 90 miles from our shores.

In recent years, Castro has forged strong economic relationships with countries like Venezuela, China, Spain and Canada, boosting Cuba's economy and further alienating Cuba from the United States.

Those alliances, some experts on the region say, have rendered a rapprochement be-

tween Cuba and the United States less likely - and less necessary - than ever.

"We have all this extensive rhetoric about how we want to bring change to Cuba, but our policy cuts off every avenue of American influence," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Arlington, Va., that conducts field research on developments in Cuba and on U.S.-Cuba relations.

The policy to which Peters referred is grounded not only in the embargo itself but in the U.S. government's insistence on placating the bitterly anti-Castro emigre community, primarily in South Florida, whose members staunchly oppose any overtures to Cuba that do not include ousting Castro and his proteges from power.

That stance was turned into law in 1996 with passage of the Helms-Burton Act, which, among other things, tightened sanctions, extended restrictions on Americans' travel to the island and threatened legal action against even non-U.S. companies that did business with Cuba.

The law essentially ties the United States' hands when it comes to influencing reform in Cuba, which, Peters says, is unfortunate, given that Raul Castro is known to be more open to free-market ideas than his brother.

"From the U.S.'s point of view, the message of the law is that Raul can be a flaming closet reformer, but, as he's there, we won't talk with him and we won't change our policy," said Peters. "As a result, Cubans are going to stay as they are now, as long as these other relationships are promising. Cubans watch the U.S. very carefully, but their diplomatic energies are being placed elsewhere now. They've moved to greener pastures."

In the absence of U.S. influence, European and Latin American nations - as well as China, which imports Cuban nickel - stand to loom large in Cuba's future.

Wayne Smith, a former diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for four years starting in 1982, said the lack of a role for the United States in Cuba's transition is "almost pathetic."

Raul Castro, Smith said, "is rather pragmatic and might be willing to reach some accommodation with the U.S., but they won't deal with him."

Either way, he said, there is "not going to be any collapse" of Cuba's government, much as the Bush administration - and its Cuban-American supporters - would appreciate such an event.

"I almost feel sorry for the hard-line exiles in Miami, banging their pots," Smith said, referring to the cheerfully cacophonous demonstrations that greeted Castro's announcement on July 31 that, after ruling continuously for 47 years, he was ceding power while recovering from surgery. to correct intestinal bleeding.

Many of the revelers clearly believed that Castro was on his deathbed, or close to it, and predicted a radical unraveling of his regime and a sudden end to Cuba's long isolation from the United States.

And yet the transfer of power in Cuba, Smith said, was accomplished without a hint of trouble.

In the meantime, Smith said, the U.S. administration is "left without any means of bringing about" the reforms Bush called for in his statement of Aug. 3, when he encouraged "all democratic nations to unite in support of the right of the Cuban people to define a democratic future for their country."

Bush was evidently hewing to the spirit of Helms-Burton as he promised that, "In the event of a transition in the Cuban government, we stand ready to provide humanitarian assistance as needed to help the Cuban people." He left no doubt that the transition he meant involved the permanent ouster of both Castros as well as their ideological adherents.

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