A Cuba beyond the Castros?
By Anya Landau French, CS Monitor, February 25, 2013
This past week was uncommonly full of Cuba news.
At the top of the list has to be this weekend’s selection of a new First Vice President in Cuba, Manuel Diaz Canel, age 52, the first person to occupy that post that did not fight in the Revolution. The outgoing First Vice President apparently stepped aside to make room for the next generation of Cuban leaders. Diaz Canel is presumed to be Raul Castro’s successor, a prospect made all the more clear by Raul Castro’s reiteration that this will indeed be his final term in office, as he promised in 2008 when he began his first full term as president.
Castro also endorsed term (and age!) limits for top government officials, and insisted that he will press ahead with his reform agenda. Two of the country’s five vice presidents are now women, and just one leader of the Revolution, Ramiro Valdes, remains.
Interestingly, Fidel Castro, who made a rare appearance at the National Assembly session yesterday and gave a wide-ranging interview to Cuba’s Communist Party daily Granma earlier this month, does not exactly seem bowled over by his brother’s big change agenda, referring to the Revolution as the “change” that matters most. While the elder Castro assures this is all just a bit of fine-tuning, the consistent message to the Cuban people from the younger Castro now in charge is clear: Cuba is changing, it is (slowly) modernizing, and perhaps most important of all, that Raul Castro himself can be trusted to follow through—however slowly at times—with the reformist policies he endorses.
While there will no doubt be ingrained skepticism among many Cubans—and Raul Castro himself makes sure not to take it too far, promising no return to capitalism in Cuba, for example—many Cubans will see the leadership changes that took place this week as a sign that more changes still are on the way.
It’s thus jarring to see how disconnected US policy is from the changes afoot in Cuba today. As one of the Cuban government’s most vocal critics, blogging sensation Yoani Sanchez (who is now traveling in Brazil, thanks to Raul Castro’s migration reforms), put it: The US embargo of Cuba is “a fossil of the Cold War that does not have any sense in the modern world in which we live.”
This week in Washington, sparks flew around one of those fossilized elements of US Cuba policy, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba has been on the list since 1982, originally for its support of armed leftist groups in the Americas. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, whose patronage made such Cuban adventures abroad possible, the State Department has repeatedly admitted that Cuba was no longer providing such support. While many analysts have repeatedly called for its removal, no administration has dared take that step. And then there was this story out last week, which suggested the Obama administration might actually be preparing to take that step soon:
“There is a pretty clear case … that they don’t really meet the standard anymore,” said a senior administration official with direct knowledge regarding US-Cuba policy who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have neither the wherewithal nor are they doing much.”
The Boston Globe, which cited “top US diplomats” in breaking the story, emphasized that no formal decision had been taken, and noted that Kerry was reviewing US policy toward Cuba.
But State wasn’t ready to be outed, and spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tried to shut down the story. “I saw that report. Let me say firmly here it is incorrect. This department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”
While our policy remains stuck in a Cold War morass, Cuba itself is undergoing meaningful changes. No longer are we talking about the 50 year old embargo reinforcing the recalcitrant Castro regime’s messaging. Now the conversation turns to how embarrassingly absent the United States is from the slow but historic metamorphosis we’ve long called for. The more Members of Congress who come to grips with both of those realities, the better for a more honest debate in Washington.