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Fidel's transfer of power to Raul sparks U.S. debate over direction of Cuba policy.

While the Bush administration says it won't change its policy towards Cuba, Fidel Castro's decision to cede power to his brother Raul has touched off a new debate on the effectiveness of the embargo.

Undoing the embargo will not be easy. Congress would have to repeal several laws and settle all U.S. property claims against the Cuban government. It would also require a 180-degree turn by the White House, which has threatened to veto any attempt to weaken the embargo and refuses to consider Raul Castro's administration a valid transitional government.

"We have no plans to reach out to Cuba," said White House spokesman Tony Snow, reacting to the Cuban government's shocking announcement Jul. 31 that Fidel was relinquishing the presidency to Raul in the wake of emergency surgery for a still-undisclosed condition.

That announcement sparked an enormous street party in Miami's Little Havana, where for several days and nights thousands of Cuban exiles sang, danced and celebrated in the streets, convinced that Fidel Castro was either dead or near death.

The 80-year-old revolutionary admitted Sep. 6 that he's lost 41 pounds since his surgery, details of which remain a state secret. Speculation is that he may have colon cancer, though no one outside Cuba knows for sure.

It's also not clear whether Fidel will receive foreign dignitaries during the 14th Non-Aligned Summit in Havana, now being attended by 116 countries and at least 50 heads of state.

All indications point to Raul firmly in control of Cuba, with the help of six other officials who have been assigned the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Cuban government.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), one of the staunchest supporters of the embargo, dismisses Raul as "an appendage of Fidel."

But businesses that have long sought an opening to Cuba are keeping an wary eye on a market that has been off-limits to most American industries for 45 years.

Castro's departure from power, if it is permanent, would deprive embargo supporters from a polarizing figure to rail against. But it also plunges Cuba into uncertainty, a turnoff for likely investors.

Tom Moushian, a Cuba specialist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said big business is watching the situation, and that various chamber's members have contacted him seeking information on what's happening in Havana. But Moushian can't tell them much because there's too much uncertainty.

"We are hopeful for positive change and more openness. But businesses like predictability, and we have none of that now," Moushian told CubaNews, adding that he doubts Congress could come up with enough votes to overturn the vetoes President Bush has threatened every time Congress attempts to weaken the embargo.


Chris Garza, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau, said it might be difficult for Congress to ease the embargo in 2006, since it's an election year and there's little time left in the congressional calendar.

"But I think the big push will come next year, and agriculture will be there," he said.

There are also political reasons to take at least some steps to ease the embargo. Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who's involved in Cuba issues, said it would send a positive signal to the island's 11.2 million citizens.

"It's only natural for the Cuban people to seek an improved financial situation and in the nature of things, that's going to include the United States," Muse told us.

Muse also said the White House has the authority to make certain changes in U.S. policy, despite the fact that several U.S. laws have tightened the embargo since it was imposed in the early 1960s, virtually transferring authority over the embargo from the president to Congress.

One thing the White House could do immediately is ease travel restrictions, which Bush toughened after assuming office in 2001. The president could scrap some of those limitations, including one that allows Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island only once every three years.

Another step Bush could take is to make it easier to sell food to Cuba, rolling back his requirement Cuba to pay for agricultural products before they leave U.S. ports.

But the White House is unlikely to do any of those things.

Instead it has repeatedly pointed to a report issued last month that recommended lifting sanctions only if Cuba took steps towards a free market and free elections.

"We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba," Bush said in a statement following Fidel's transfer of power to his brother.

The report, a follow-up to one issued in 2004 from the administration's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba--which also recommended getting U.S. advisers on the ground within a few weeks of Fidel's departure from power--was attacked by the Cuban government as yet another example U.S. interference in its affairs.


There are other obstacles to a widespread lifting of sanctions besides the Bush administration's hard line. Among the biggest is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which, like the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, links the lifting of sanctions on a series of tough conditions for Cuba.

On Jul. 17, two weeks before Fidel turned the reins of power to his brother Raul, President Bush extended for six months, starting Aug. 1, the postponement of enforcement of a section of Chapter III of Helms-Burton where-by U.S. citizens could file lawsuits against Cuba in relation to confiscated properties.

In a letter to the Foreign Relations and Budget Committees of both the House and the Senate, Bush said the postponement "is necessary in the national interests of the United States and will accelerate the transition towards democracy in Cuba."

Helms-Burton establishes in Chapters III and IV sanctions to be applied to foreign firms that have business operations in Cuba. It also permits the filing of lawsuits against businesses or individuals that make use of properties formerly owned by U.S. citizens or companies nationalized by the Cuban government.

Another provision denies entry to U.S. territory of executives of companies doing business in Cuba.

And thanks to a separate provision included by Sen. Bob Menendez, (D-NJ)--then a member of the House of Representatives--Helms-Burton also bars a lifting of sanctions while Raul Castro is in power.

Menendez said the only way he'd seek a change the law is "if Raul is elected in free and fair elections"--a pretty unlikely scenario.

But Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, said he plan to introduce legislation that would modify or eliminate that section of Helms-Burton that addresses conditions for lifting the embargo.

"We've been begging for years to modify Helms-Burton, because nobody believes wholesale change is really going to happen," said Flake, whose previous attempts to alter Cuba policy have faltered because of Bush's veto threats. And there are other problems, including the possibility Cuba might not want new chances to trade with the United States.

John Kavulich, senior policy adviser with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said there's little reason for Cuba to seek new openings because its economy is now being supported by Venezuela and China.

"For Cuba, the status quo is perfectly acceptable," said Kavulich, suggesting that analysts who predict rapid change in U.S.- Cuba relations should take a step back. "People should just take a chill pill."
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Title Annotation:Raul Castro
Author:Radelat, Ana
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:Calendar of events.
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