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No Cracks in Cuba’s Facade

Prepared by: Michael Moran
December 18, 2006


The largest delegation of U.S. lawmakers to visit Cuba in a decade left with very little to show for its visit. Four Republicans and six Democrats spent the weekend on the island meeting high-level officials and seeking signs that Fidel Castro’s convalescence might provide an opening for better relations. Yet, as Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told reporters: "the Cuban officials made every attempt to convince us, to demonstrate that there is no change of policy in Cuba" (ChiTrib)

The delegation had sought a meeting with Raul Castro, the brother to whom Fidel ceded power when he entered the hospital last summer with a mysterious intestinal ailment. Meeting Raul, however, was not on the menu. Indeed, news accounts of the visit were dominated by Cuban assertions that Fidel Castro would recover (Reuters) from his illness, as well as official denials that he is suffering from terminal cancer. "The party line is that Fidel is coming back. He does not have cancer," says Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA).

Either way, argues CFR Senior Fellow Julia E. Sweig, the smooth transition between brothers should put an end once and for all to an American policy based on “wishful thinking.” Cuba’s “maximum leader” has not appeared in public since July, when he handed power to Raul. Yet the Eastern European-style uprising so many of Castro’s U.S.-based opponents anticipated failed to materialize. Raul has maintained a relatively low profile (MiamiHerald) since, running the country from behind the scenes and leaving analysts and other observers little real evidence of the country’s direction.

If change is afoot, so far it appears subtle, indeed. In late October, a Cuban newspaper announced that a team of Cuban academics will study the economic system for flaws that fuel corruption (MiamiHerald). The government is “putting people on notice that they are looking for a policy solution,” says Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute. In the Latin Business Chronicle, he suggests the proposals go “beyond the predictable” and that current moves in Havana recall the reforms of the early-1990s when, under Raul’s leadership of enterprises run by the armed forces, Cuba allowed limited market activities in response to an economic collapse precipitated by the end of Soviet aid.

But others remain skeptical (CSMonitor) any market reforms will take place. In the United States, meanwhile, a few see signs Congress might seriously revisit the four decades-old embargo that underpins U.S. policy (Marketplace) toward Cuba.

Still, little enthusiasm is evident in the new Democratic Congress for tackling Cuban policy reform. The Cuban-American community—important in U.S.electoral politics by virtue of its influence in Florida—has defeated one effort after another to review the policy toward the island. The Miami Herald’s online survey, “End of the Castro Era?” gives some idea of the range of opinion and emotions in that community.

Others see Fidel Castro’s demise as precisely the wrong time to be flexible. Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation claims maintaining economic sanctions is now “more important than ever as a negotiating tool.” In South Florida, Cuban-Americans say they are tired of being type-cast as unreasonable zealots (Sun-Sentinel) for opposing a dictator every bit as brutal as Chile’s recently deceased Augusto Pinochet.

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