Cuban leader Fidel Castro is nearing his eightieth birthday and talk of succession is in the air. His younger brother, defense minister, and heir apparent, Raul, is enjoying a surge in media attention (Miami Herald), suggesting to Cuba watchers that a power transition is underway. Raul has stressed in recent media appearances that the communist party will remain the anchor of the Cuban ship of state. U.S. officials have something different in mind. Vexed by Castro's regime for forty-seven years, the White House earlier this month reaffirmed a plan to support independent civil society and break the information blockade 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.
But Cuban officials have signaled they will play hardball against this soft diplomacy, 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 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. An AP analysis says Cuba notably lacks the kind of opposition figures and institutions that helped communist states in Eastern Europe make a relatively smooth transition to capitalism. 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 new CFR backgrounder looks at the issues that continue to dog the U.S.-Cuban relationship. CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig in a 2002 book explored the roots of the Cuban revolution and how Castro managed to retain power even after the collapse of his main benefactor, the Soviet Union.
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 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 in the democratic development of Cuba. 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 concern that receiving U.S. monies could damage their efforts. In neither case is it specified how such funds would be channeled to democracy groups.