U.S. weighs plans for new era in Cuba
By GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press WriterTue Aug 1, 8:44 PM ET
The Bush administration dismissed Raul Castro, suddenly the acting leader in Cuba, as no more than a "prison-keeper" on Tuesday as officials reviewed long-standing plans for the post-Fidel Castro era.
"The fact that you have an autocrat handing power off to his brother does not mark an end to autocracy," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of the Castro brothers.
U.S. officials tried to evaluate the meaning of Monday's announcement that Fidel Castro had temporarily relinquished power to Raul because of an intestinal illness. Fidel Castro will be 80 in less than two weeks; Raul is 75.
One concern is possible post-Castro instability in Cuba, leading to large-scale migration by Cubans to South Florida, similar to what transpired in 1980 and 1995. Another worry is that Castro's friends in the hemisphere, notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, might intervene to ensure that Castroite rule survives the aging leader's death.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was born in Cuba, addressed that issue at a news briefing without referring specifically to Venezuela. He said the U.S. does not want to see anyone — "any third party — stand in the way of the rights of the Cuban people to elect their government."
He also rejected the Cuban government's suggestions that once the Castro era ends, Cuban-Americans will return to the island, reclaim the homes they abandoned and expel the current occupants.
"We are telling the Cuban people that that is just not true," Gutierrez said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard, which has long had plans to deal with mass migrations from Cuba and other destinations by sea, has not activated them in light of Castro's illness, Cmdr. Jeff Carter said.
"We're monitoring the situation in Cuba, but we have not moved any cutters, aircraft or personnel, nor have we executed any plans," Carter said.
The administration has labored since the fall of 2003 on ways to hasten a transition to democratic rule in Cuba and to assist the island in recovering from what U.S. officials regard as 47 years communist misrule.
Fidel Castro rejects the notion that the system he has put in place will give way to a democratic transition.
"We had our transition in 1959," Castro has said, referring to the year when, at age 32, he led a rebel band to victory over a rightist military dictator.
No country's succession has received more attention from the U.S. government than has Cuba.
A presidential commission issued a report in 2004 that mapped plans to provide 100,000 tons of food to Cuba in short order after Castro's demise.
U.S. charities would be encouraged to create and contribute to a foundation to aid a "Free Cuba." American government officials would carry out a "needs assessment" as soon as possible. There are detailed plans for upgrading health and education systems.
The report also discusses ways to modernize Cuba's aviation, railroad and maritime infrastructure. It envisions U.S. assistance in holding free elections, fighting corruption and establishing independent trade unions. According to the report, none of these actions would occur without Cuba's consent.
An updated commission report, released three weeks ago, recommended that the U.S. provide $80 million to support dissidents and nongovernmental organizations on the island.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (news, bio, voting record), D-Conn., said the administration should work to ensure that there is a soft landing in Cuba — as opposed to civil strife — once the Castro era ends.
"My hope would be the administration is working with our allies and others to prepare for that easier transition than might otherwise occur," he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (news, bio, voting record), R-Fla., a Cuban-born member of the House International Relations Committee who has long opposed Castro, said even a temporary relinquishment of power by Castro is "a great day for the Cuban people and for their brothers and sisters in exile."
"Fidel Castro has only brought ruin and misery to Cuba," she said.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who like Ros-Lehtinen was born in Cuba, joined with her in saying they expect U.S. action for now will be limited to transmitting radio messages to the Cuban people and preventing any influx of illegal immigrants from the island.
Martinez also said he would not support lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba until change was under way. Instead, the United States should lend its ear to political dissidents and pressure outside forces, such as Venezuela, to limit support of the communist government, the senator said.
Many in the U.S. declined to accept the Cuban announcement at face value.
"I don't know whether he's alive or dead," said Brian Latell, a former leading CIA Cuba analyst and author of the book "After Fidel."
Martinez agreed, saying Castro "may be very, very ill or dead."
Latell said Raul Castro's rise to prominence has been orchestrated for some time, especially in the period surrounding his 75th birthday two months ago. Latell expressed doubt that Fidel Castro would ever regain full power even if his titles were restored.
Phil Peters, who heads the Cuba program at the Lexington Institute, a private research group, said he was struck by the lack of information from Cuba about Castro's condition.
Concerning the official announcement of Castro's surgery, Peters said, "We have a statement from the patient but not the doctor."
He raised the possibility that the actions by the 79-year old Cuban leader may be a dress rehearsal for his eventual death. The move by Castro to the sidelines may shed light on who among his subordinates and opponents harbors political ambitions, Peters said.