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Cuba Without Castro: The U.S. Response

Fidel Castro has left the command posts of the Cuban government, but he will continue to be an influential voice for as long as his health permits. Fidel’s brother Raul Castro, head of the armed forces, takes center stage. What is the U.S. government’s likely response at this pivotal moment?

Aside from the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the subsequent sabotage-and-destabilization Operation Mongoose, and permanent efforts towards diplomatic isolation of Cuba, the U.S. has maintained a policy of economic strangulation of the island since the early 1960s.

In 1992, as Cuba entered the so-called Special Period in a Time of Peace with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Congress took the embargo up a notch with a law that projected an extra-jurisdictional reach, with the intent of forcing other nations to comply with the U.S. policy. The policy matched the Cubans’ preferred term: blockade.

Thirty four years later when Cuba’s restructured economy began to grow notwithstanding, Congress codified all existing laws and regulations into the Helms-Burton Act, the most draconian expression of U.S. policy until that time.

In 2004, the Bush Administration instituted administratively a further series of actions, including restricting family and educational travel and the amount of remittances that families could send to Cuba. That same year, a commission on Cuba chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez predicted confidently that upon the "death or incapacitation" of Fidel Castro there would be a general uprising in Cuba, to which the U.S .had to be ready to respond within as soon as two weeks after the fact. Just months later, however, Castro became incapacitated and nothing happened on the island. The succession that Bush and Rice had repeatedly said they would not permit was set into motion.

By that time, the policy of embargo/blockade had been pursued in some fashion by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Six of them have passed on. Bush II will leave office at the end of this year. Fidel may be alive by then to say goodbye to the outgoing president and hello to the new one, writing one more Reflection.

When Raul Castro, 76, took over as acting president he twice offered talks without preconditions in an effort of improve relations. The U.S. dismissed the possibility. The latest position taken by the Cuban government is that no improvement will be possible until at least after the Bush Administration has left office.

The embargo/blockade, now a legislative mandate, has become a policy of state, not of government. It has gone on for so long that it is hard to imagine the U.S. taking a different approach. I doubt the Bush Administration will deviate from that line. Any possible change will come only from the next president and members of Congress who take, or remain in, office next January.

The options for the U.S. are mainly these: 1) Stay the course; 2) Recognize the new government of Cuba by initiating talks; or 3) Set forth conditions to be met before even talks can begin. There is little likelihood of a unilateral opening on this side of the Florida Straits.

All of the Republican candidates except for Ron Paul have pledged to follow the hard line. All of the Democratic candidates have taken generally cautious positions to the effect of "we’ll see; it depends on what the Cubans do," except that Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has stated flatly that the policy of blockade is a failure. He also stated earlier in the campaign that he would be willing to talk with troublesome foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro. Otherwise, the Democratic candidates have gone no further than to express some willingness to relax the administrative rules restricting family travel and remittances.

What, realistically, are the chances that the resignation of Fidel Castro will lead to a collapse of the Cuban government? What factors should the U.S. be considering?

That discussion is for a later post.

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