The Obama administration reacted skeptically Monday toward the news out of Cuba that nearly a half-century of Castro rule will officially come to an end by 2018.
Raul Castro, the current Cuban president, said Sunday that he will relinquish power by the end of his recently begun five-year term. But the development, along with the naming in Havana of a possible successor — who wasn’t even born yet when Raul’s brother Fidel seized power in 1959 — did little more than raise eyebrows at the State Department.
“We remain hopeful for the day that the Cuban people get democracy, when they can have the opportunity to freely pick their own leaders in an open democratic process and enjoy the freedoms of speech and association without fear of reprisal,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. “We are clearly not there yet.”
The comments underscore what some foreign policy analysts see as an unwillingness on the part of the Obama administration to embrace a possible thaw in the long-frozen relations between Washington and its Cold War-era foe.
Speculation that newly confirmed Secretary of State John F. Kerry might push the White House toward such a thaw seemed to dry up last week when State Department officials denied a report that had said they were moving toward scratching Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list.
Analysts said Monday that the latest developments in Havana are unlikely to change the Obama administration’s stance.
“I think there was already significant debate within the administration about whether to move Cuba from the list and I don’t think this announcement from Raul Castro is going to have much effect,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
In addition, any serious shift in Cuba policy is likely to run up against resistance from most Republicans and some key Democrats on Capitol Hill. Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said the Castro announcement was “hardly a step toward reform or democracy.”
Mr. Menendez said “repression continues unabated in Cuba with more than 6,600 documented detentions and arrests of peaceful democracy activists on the island last year,” and pointed out the ongoing detention in Cuba of Alan Gross “for trying to help the island’s small Jewish community connect to the Internet.”
“Raul Castro says that he’ll step down in 2018, but there are no free elections in Cuba,” the senator said. “His anointment of a successor also confirms the regime’s intent to perpetuate a socialist dictatorship in Cuba and deny a voice to the Cuban people through real and meaningful elections.”
Mr. Shifter and others said the developments fall far short of the sort of reforms that would be required in Cuba in order for Washington to lift its embargo on trade with the communist nation. At issue is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which blocks the lifting of the embargo unless significant democratic reforms are implemented.
“We should be clear, this isn’t democracy in the sense that Helms-Burton meant it,” said Geoff Thale, who heads the Cuba program at the Washington Office on Latin America.
While changes on the island may be occurring slower than the rate sought by Washington, Cuba is “clearly engaged in a process of economic and to a certain extent political reform,” said Mr. Thale. “It’s harder to say, ‘Nothing is changing in Cuba, so we should continue our embargo for the next 50 years.’”
“I think we should respond,” Mr. Thale added. “The details of ‘how’ are up to debate, but we should respond.”
Mr. Thale’s comments were echoed by others.
“This represents a significant window of opportunity for the United States to start working today to empower reformers within the Cuban government and facilitate change toward the island,” said Ricardo Herrero, deputy executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Cuban exile organization seeking repeal of the Helms-Burton Act.
Mr. Herrero pointed specifically to the tapping on Sunday of communist party loyalist Miguel Diaz Canel to the Cuban vice presidency.
The 52-year-old former electrical engineer has spent the past three decades quietly rising through the party’s ranks. Should he succeed Raul Castro in the presidency, he will be the first to hold real power in Cuba without having fought in the island nation’s communist revolution.
Mr. Diaz Canel represents a stark departure from Jose Ramon Machado, 82, who has held the vice presidency since Raul Castro, 81, ascended from it in 2008 to replace his brother Fidel, 86, as Cuba’s president.
When Mr. Machado was tapped five years ago, it “was a sign that the old regime was doubling down,” said Mr. Herrero. “He was as hardline as they got in that system.
“To move away from him by basically replacing him now with a technocrat, who is not part of the historic leadership, they’re showing a shift away from folks whose primary objective was political victory over the United States.”
They’re moving “toward someone who would be more interested in helping to fix their economy and helping their system recover from the morass that it’s currently in,” Mr. Herrero said.