U.S. Waits for Concrete News from Cuba

The Bush administration says it's closely monitoring the situation in Cuba, where Fidel Castro has ceded power to his brother due to health issues. It is official U.S. policy to "undermine" Cuba's planned succession from Fidel to his brother Raul.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Bush administration says it's watching closely the situation in Cuba now that Fidel Castro, who is recovering from surgery, has temporarily handed power to his brother. U.S. policy is aimed at breaking the Communist Party's hold on power and blocking Cuba's plans to have Raul Castro succeed his older brother.

But critics say that Washington doesn't have much leverage, given its long embargo of Cuba.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who worked on the Bush administration's plans for a post-Castro Cuba, says this is an emotional time for him. He left Cuba as a boy and has been waiting for the day that Fidel Castro leaves the scene.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): My hope is that there'll be an opportunity for voices of freedom to be heard within Cuba; that this would begin a moment of transformation and transition to a better life and a better day.

KELEMEN: The transition plans he helped write were updated this year. The latest report, released in early July, spells out the economic and humanitarian aid that the U.S. would offer to Cuba. The trouble is, says Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, much of the plan won't kick in as long as Raul Castro is in power.

Mr. PHILIP PETERS (Lexington Institute): The legal definition of transition is very - a very steep set of conditions. And so, essentially what our message to Cuba is, is that we'll join you in the ninth inning, but good luck in the first eight innings - getting there on your own.

KELEMEN: Peters argues that the U.S. embargo on Cuba hasn't worked. Venezuela, China and others have stepped in as influential players. So, he says, the U.S. has little leverage in Cuba. And he says, even if the Bush administration wanted to change course and ease the embargo, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act ties the hands of U.S. policymakers.

Mr. PETERS: We can only change our posture towards Cuba when there's a transition government, which means they've released all political prisoners; political parties are free to operate; prisons are open to inspection; they have a timetable for elections; and Raul Castro is out of power. If he takes over and undertakes a great series of reforms, we would have to change our law before we can respond in any way.

KELEMEN: Senator Martinez doesn't think the Helms-Burton Act is a problem.

Sen. MARTINEZ: I also don't think that we should feel constrained by Helms-Burton, which is now a decade old piece of legislation. I think that we could act at any moment to enact new legislation if we felt it was in the interest of advancing a transition to a democratic Cuba.

KELEMEN: He says that if there is a flaw in U.S. policy, it is that Americans have few contacts with Cubans, at a time when the U.S. needs to be listening.

Sen. MARTINEZ: To listen to voices within Cuba that may speak a different tune. I really don't have much hope that Raul Castro will be that, but I would hope that there may be others within the hierarchy of Cuba's government who have maybe wished secretly or privately that there be a different future for the people of Cuba.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration has made clear it has no plans to reach out to Raul Castro, but officials are trying to allay any concerns the Cuban people have about the U.S. approach. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who co-chairs the administration's Commission for a Free Cuba, had this message yesterday.

Mr. CARLOS GUTIERREZ (Secretary of Commerce): The United States and our citizens pose no threat to the security or the homes of the Cuban people. President Bush recognizes that Cuba belongs to the Cuban people, and that the future of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans.

KELEMEN: Gutierrez, who's also Cuban-born, says he thinks Cubans have a choice - political freedom or more repression by the communist regime. But other Cuba watchers see that as wishful thinking, and say the U.S. policy of simply supporting dissidents has little prospect for changing events on the ground.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can hear Fidel Castro through the years, and follow a timeline of the Cuban leader at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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