After Fidel: What Future for U.S.-Cuban Relations?

Article excerpt

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Latin America always seems on the verge of something historic, always teetering between possibility and failure. (1)

DESPITE THE END of the cold war over two decades and intractable post-9/11 security challenges, when it comes to Cuba, U.S. policy-makers remain mired in the past. Once again, it seems that Fidel Castro's Cuba is different. Cuba is not only the hemisphere's oldest dictatorship, but also a long-standing U.S. foreign policy failure. Radical change has engulfed the region since the end of 2005. Presidential elections across Latin America have swept in popular, radical, left-leaning, and often anti-American leaders and governments. In Chile, a woman became the first elected president of a South American country, and in Bolivia, an indigenous leader attained the presidency for the first time in the region's modern history--but the relations between Cuba and the United States have remained frozen in time. (2)

Throughout it all, Castro and his regime have survived? Despite the dictator's old age and poor health and the economic and political failures of the Cuban Revolution, unrelenting efforts by the United States and its allies in the region and abroad to render Castro and his socialist model irrelevant have backfired. (4) In fact, the revolutionary spirit is alive and well in Latin America, thanks in part to the U.S. 's anti-Castro policy. The world is a different place today: the global and hemispheric climates are more critical of U.S. leadership and its economic and political models and more supportive of Castro and Cuban socialism. For a significant percentage of Latin America's population, Castro and the Cuban Revolution remain powerful symbols of success and resistance to the "Empire."

In spite of the U.S. economic blockade and the reactionary Helms-Burton legislation, Cuba has become a leader in education and medical care, providing free medical training to aspiring Third World doctors (and even some First World ones). Cuba's economy has defied predictions that it would collapse within months of the fall of the Soviet Union; instead, Cuba has developed a successful tourism sector and growing sports and biotechnology industries and attracted direct investments from around the world. Diplomatic and economic relations have expanded regionally and globally. In 2007, 30 of 32 Latin American governments maintained normalized ties with Cuba, and a number of governments, particularly Venezuela, Canada, Spain, and China, expanded trade agreements and commercial ventures with the island. (5) Additionally, since 1999, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela has provided a valuable political and economic lifeline to Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

But how permanent are these achievements? Can they and the Cuban Revolution survive Fidel's death? Or is Castro the indispensable glue that holds the system together? Since Castro became seriously ill in July 2006, critics and supporters of his regime have speculated over the future of Cuba without Fidel. The official successor and temporary head of government during Castro's recuperation, Fidel's brother Raul, is also aging, having celebrated his 76th birthday in June 2007. What will Cuba's future be like when both Castros have left the stage?

More questions spring up. What should the U.S. response be to a Fidel-less Cuba? Will the immediate change in leadership further normalization of relations and an end to the embargo? Will the U.S. continue its long-standing policy of indirect subversion and sabotage? Or will Fidel's death and the transition to another leader provide the opportune climate for direct U.S. military intervention? Will the Cuban dissidents on and off the island be able to rally the Cuban people to overthrow a successor government? Should the United States have a role, either direct or indirect, in regime change in Cuba? Would an active U.S. role promote democracy in Cuba and the region? And what would be the immediate and long-term impact of U. …