Cuban leader Fidel Castro has made clear his intention to hand power to Raul—his younger brother, defense minister, and heir apparent—after his death. That scenario gets a trial run over the next several weeks as Castro recovers from intestinal surgery. In a letter read on state television July 31, Castro ceded some, but not all, of his powers to his brother (BBC). Castro, nearing his eightieth birthday (Miami Herald), remains very much in control of Cuba. But analysts will carefully watch Raul's stand-in performance. The younger Castro, profiled here by Robert Windrem of NBC News, has stressed the communist party's permanence in recent public appearances.
U.S. officials and many Cuban dissidents and exiles have something different in mind. Temporary or not, news of the transfer of power sparked celebrations (Reuters) in the anti-Castro environs of Miami. Vexed by Castro's regime for forty-seven years, the White House earlier this month reaffirmed a plan to support independent civil society in Cuba, aiming for a transition to "genuine democracy." The Bush administration endorsed a call by a government agency, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, to spend about $80 million to promote democratic succession. CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig, author of Inside the Cuban Revolution, provides vital context to the situation in this new podcast.
Cuban officials have signaled they will play hardball against Washington's diplomatic maneuvers, saying it amounts to active U.S. support for regime change. The president of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, said the U.S. efforts are doomed to fail (BBC), but would "cause harm and deprivation and suffering of individuals." Cuba's dissident community is still struggling to recover from a 2003 crackdown on citizens ranging from medical doctors to librarians. The Lexington Institute says in a recent Cuba policy report that despite the Bush administration's tough words, its policies in Cuba "seem to have no prospect of being politically decisive." This Backgrounder looks at the issues that continue to dog the U.S.-Cuban relationship.
Other than some enhanced funding, there does not appear to be much new in the U.S. approach. The Congressional Research Service says the U.S. government has been planning for years (PDF) how to handle political transition in Cuba, noting a 1997 report by the Clinton Administration that outlined ways in which U.S. and international actors could assist Cuba's democratic development. The size and focus of the fund announced on July 10 appeared to be similar to the new Bush administration initiative to spur democratic change in Iran. In both cases, local civil society activists raised concerns that receiving U.S. monies could damage their efforts, and it remains unclear how such funds would be channeled to democracy groups.