Analysis: Castro’s departure won’t bring quick change in US policy

Washington – Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s resignation provides an opportunity for the United States to take a fresh look at relations with the communist island less than 200 kilometres off its border, but analysts doubt the Bush administration will budge from its hardline approach until there are signs of real democratic change.

Castro’s younger brother Raul, who has been running the country since Castro fell ill in July 2006, is a committed communist and is unlikely, aside from some mild economic adjustments, to depart much from Fidel’s agenda or introduce the reforms Washington insists are essential for easing the hostility that has characterized relations for nearly five decades.

‘The Bush administration’s posture has been, ‘We won’t change anything until Cuba changes completely,” said Phil Peters, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington.

President George W Bush in 2004 tightened sanctions on Cuba to hasten the collapse of the Castro regime, and set up a transitional team to ready the US effort to assist the country toward a democracy and provide millions of dollars in humanitarian relief once the regime was gone.

The United States has had no formal diplomatic ties with Cuba since the Caribbean island nation allied with the Soviet Union after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Washington has had strict economic sanctions on Cuba since the early 1960s.

‘We remain hopeful that the Cuban people will one day be able to elect their leaders, that they will one day be able to actually build democratic institutions that serve the needs of the people and that reflect the will of the people,’ State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of Castro’s announcement.

‘There’s no change in our policies,’ McCormack added. ‘I don’t believe that there is anyone contemplating that at this point either.’

During the Cold War, US-Cuban relations were marked by numerous attempts by Washington on Castro’s life, the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that brought the United States and Soviet Union to brink of nuclear war, and a mass exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States over several decades.

Raul Castro, who has always been viewed as his brother’s successor, has consolidated control since Castro transferred power and has been effectively running the government, analysts say.

Raul will benefit from a Cuban economy that has been growing because of expanding trade with China and Venezuela, meaning the island’s economy will not be desperate enough to comply with US demands, said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

‘Raul is not going to come forward with any dramatic reforms,’ Birns said. ‘He is going to be a maintainer. Not a divider, not a decider, but a maintainer.’

Domestic political reasons also limit Bush’s ability to soften his policy on Cuba. Cuban Americans make up a large voting bloc in Florida, a critical state in presidential elections, and generally advocate a tough policy against the regime.

But the analysts don’t rule out the possibility that relations could improve. The Democratic Party took control of Congress in January for the first time in 12 years and is traditionally less hardline about Cuba than Republicans. Some have already said they will pursue legislation to relax sanctions on Cuba.

Bush will have the power to veto that legislation, but could come under increasing pressure to change his approach toward Cuba now that Castro has stepped down.

‘I think the country will take a hard look at (the policy),’ Peters said. Castro’s departure ‘is a very newsworthy event and people are going to focus on Cuba. Congress will reexamine it and hopefully the administration will too. But there is nothing automatic here.’