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Cuba’s Comandante Steps Down

Author: Stephanie Hanson
February 19, 2008

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Editor's Note: As expected, Cuba's National Assembly unanimously named Raul Castro as his brother's successor on February 24, 2008.

When Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul in July 2006, speculation ran rampant about just how ill he was, how Cubans would react, and whether U.S. policy toward the island would change. As it turned out, life in Cuba (and U.S. policy toward it) remained largely the same. But Fidel’s formal resignation, announced in the state-run Granma newspaper on February 19, is sure to set off another round of conjecture. Experts say the comandante’s legacy will loom large for the foreseeable future, but are divided on whether Washington will change its tack toward Cuba.

Fidel, who held power for forty-nine years, is the only leader most Cubans have ever known. As a result, most experts anticipate the one-party state—and Fidel’s influence within it—will persist. David Jessop, chief executive of the London-based Caribbean Council, tells the Financial Times that “Fidel could play the role of ideological watchdog.” Fidel himself indicated he would continue to communicate with the Cuban people in written form. “This is not my farewell to you,” he wrote in Granma. “My only wish is to fight on as a soldier in the battle of ideas.”

But that battle will likely be led by Raul, who is expected to be appointed president on January 24 when Cuba’s National Assembly meets. Unlike his brother, Raul will face pressure from the population to ease their growing economic hardship (Times of London), and his statements during his year-and-a-half in charge have raised public expectations. Most Cubans rely on the black market to eke out a living. Raul has already solicited suggestions for improvement in the Cuban system, and some observers suggest he aspires toward the Chinese economic model, which he has studied since 1997. Agriculture reform would mark one step toward such an economic opening, but experts caution against expecting significant changes in the near term. In the long-term, however, Cuba’s economic prospects are brighter. CFR’s Julia E. Sweig writes in Foreign Affairs, “The revolution’s investment in human capital has made Cuba uniquely well positioned to take advantage of the global economy.”

It remains to be seen whether Castro’s departure will bring any change to U.S. policy toward Havana. The United States labels Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and has maintained an economic embargo against the island for decades. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act established that Washington would not lift that embargo so long as a Castro government remained in power—including a government led by Raul Castro. But experts say U.S. policy may change when a new president takes office in 2009. The issue has come up as a wedge on the U.S. campaign trail, with several Republican candidates pushing to maintain a hard line on the embargo, and the Democratic front-runners differing on policy. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), unlike his opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), favors lifting U.S.-Cuba travel and remittance restrictions.

In a recent podcast, CFR’s Sweig says it would have “very important symbolic resonance regionally and even globally” were Washington to shift its stance toward Cuba. At a bare minimum, she suggests, the United States should open dialogue with Raul, who has signaled his willingness to talk. Sweig moderated a CFR meeting in January between two members of Congress with opposing views on the issue. Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that such a step would not imply “an abandonment of U.S. commitment to democracy in Cuba, but instead a more realistic and pragmatic approach toward meeting that goal” (PDF). But others, including many Cuban-Americans, oppose any change. Manuel Tellechea, author of a blog on Cuba, sums up their sentiments: “When a hole is finally dug in the ground for [Fidel], celebrate then, although that will not mean the end of Communist tyranny either, at least it will mean the end of the tyrant.”

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