- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The mysterious illness of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, which has kept him hospitalized for over a week, caused him to hand over the reins of power to his brother, Raul, for the first time since Mr. Castro came to power. It presents a major challenge for American policy. Every so often, speculation has erupted in the Cuban-American community that Mr. Castro was definitely at death’s door. In the past year, however, the sense that a transition is imminent has intensified, and so has planning for the post-Castro era — both here in Washington and in Havana.

“At the same time we see hope and growth in Cuban civil society, Fidel Castro and his inner circle have begun a gradual but intrinsically unstable process of succession. The regime is unquestioningly attempting to insulate itself from the consequences of Fidel Castro’s incapacitation, death, or ouster,” says a Report to the President by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, published with fortuitous timing in July under the leadership of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.

The report very much reflects the essence of statements made by Miss Rice and President Bush that the administration is committed to helping the Cubans in search of self-determination. These statements have occasioned attempts in Cuba to redirect the attention of the Cuban people from the dearth of information about the health of their leadership — which is secretive in the fine old tradition of Soviet Union. Raul Castro has called out the military, supposedly in preparation for an American invasion. What better way to keep control and blame the Bush administration at the same time?

The current situation presents a test for the accuracy of U.S. thinking on a Cuban political transition as well as the hopes and dreams of the Cuban American community. It prompts questions like: Is Fidel Castro the only glue that holds the Communist regime together or can the regime survive his demise? How widespread is the support for democracy activists among the Cuban population? How do they feel about political intervention deriving from the United States? Most reporters who have interviewed man-in-the-street Cubans about Mr. Castro’s health have found a population loyal to the aging dictator and to communism, but what else are people going to say when the outcome is uncertain? Political dissent remains a dangerous occupation in Cuba.

The report on Cuba contains three major clusters of recommendations, none of which involves the use of military force, one might add, given that the Bush administration is frequently and inaccurately accused in the international media of wanting to export democracy at gunpoint.

First, the focus is on addressing the pressing humanitarian and social issues, including chronic malnutrition, polluted drinking water and untreated diseases. Even as the Castro regime has found money to support friends like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and even as Cuba is offering boutique health care to foreigners who can afford to pay, health care among ordinary Cubans is paltry. Cubans will expect their next government to do better.

Second, the report calls for free and fair elections, an “open environment free, of intimidation and other impediments” and enough time for the international community to be involved in the process. The report envisions a transitional government that would pave the way and organize such election, and proposes U.S. assistance “if requested by a new Cuban government” toward release of political prisoners, establishment of a free press and freedom of association. It also calls for competitive multiparty elections and for preparing for the Cuban military to take on an appropriate role in a democratic society.

And finally, a group of recommendations focuses on helping Cubans create market-based economic opportunities. These range from allowing Cubans to join freely labor unions and to bargain collectively (ironically never a feature of socialist economies) to rebuilding the island’s crumbling infrastructure. All of this would be the job not just of the U.S. government, but also the international community and the Cuban American community.

Needless to say, there is a way — long or short, we do not know yet — until we get to the point of implementing policy recommendations like these. At the very least, however, they do represent a clear road map. When the opportunity presents itself, it should be one that the international community can get behind.

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