“The issue is not how to change US policy toward Cuba. The issue is how to change the Cuban regime,” Havana-born US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said not once, not twice, but throughout a recent speech titled “Cuba After Fidel.” The secretary’s disciplined effort to stay “on message” was likely a response to the emerging pressure on Washington to abandon its policy of perpetual hostility and assume a new approach toward Havana–given new political realities in both capitals.
In Washington and Havana, two striking events may have laid the groundwork for real political drama this year: After almost fifty years of supreme rule, a gravely ill Fidel Castro transferred “provisional” power to his brother Raul last July, and after twelve years of being out of power, the Democratic Party resumed control of Congress last November.
In Cuba, eight months of stability and business-as-usual have passed since the announcement of Castro’s illness, reported to be diverticulitis. Castro’s health has improved, and he is slowly re-entering public life, but he appears not to have resumed his previous around-the-clock work schedule, nor his notorious micromanagement of major and minor affairs of state. Yet the regime has not collapsed–as so many officials, analysts and exiles wishfully believed it would–exposing the utter failure of the US policy of regime change. In Washington, Democrats who want a more enlightened posture toward Havana have assumed control of key Congressional committees. Precisely because it is now an open secret that Washington’s half-century don’t talk/don’t trade/don’t travel policy toward Cuba has gone nowhere, the new US Congress has the opportunity to lay the foundation for an overhaul of America’s Cuba policy that a centrist of either party could pursue once in the White House in 2009.
If the Administration were not so embroiled in Iraq, Castro’s dire illness might have provoked a collective cry of “Ding-dong, the witch is dead,” but the unanticipated shifting of the guard in Cuba and subsequent stability there has caught Washington unawares. With the exception of Secretary Gutierrez’s muscular speech, the Administration’s silence on the issue has been deafening, and telling. Caleb McCarry, the Administration’s “transition coordinator” for Cuba, has been keeping a notably low profile. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon has spent his time recently with a number of senior Administration officials and the President himself trying to recover lost ground with the countries in Latin America that really count, such as Brazil and Mexico.
To be sure, a few lonely voices still carry the torch: Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte testified in his last hearing as intelligence czar in January that despite official Cuba’s efforts at an orderly transfer of power, the United States does not want to see a “soft landing” in Cuba. And Cuban-American members of Congress in both parties–but especially House Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario Díaz-Balart–remain unreconstructed but increasingly isolated defenders of overthrowing the Cuban regime. Together with some White House allies, they are willing to risk, and perhaps even welcome, the consequences of a crash landing, on the gamble that the violence and chaos that would ensue would create a post-Castro, post-socialist, post-revolutionary vacuum into which they and their increasingly divided constituents could step.