The Raul Castro Era Begins

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Fidel and Raśl Castro

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All that, however, won't do much to appease the Bush Administration. While on his trip to Africa today, President Bush reiterated his stance that as long as either Castro brother is running Cuba, the U.S. won't consider opening trade or diplomatic relations with the island. While Bush acknowledged that Fidel's resignation could be a step toward a "democratic transition" in Cuba, he insisted that Washington will have to see "free and fair elections" in Cuba before the U.S. softens its stance, "not those staged elections the Castro brothers try to pass off as free and fair." Havana seemed to expect as much. One Cuban official joked to TIME that Fidel had timed his announcement for the middle of the night in the Western Hemisphere because "we knew Bush was in Africa and due to the time difference it would be the best time, as he certainly would say something that will only prove how close-minded and mean he is towards the island."

Raul's ascension, however, is sure to amplify the U.S. debate over whether to begin engaging Cuba more deeply in order to be better positioned to help a democratic transition once the Castros are gone. (A new U.S. Administration could mean a change in American policy toward the island.) Meanwhile, Fidel's resignation is both a boon and a bitter pill to Cuban exiles in Miami, who are relieved to see him out of power but unhappy that he, and not they, got to choose the timing of his exit, and that his regime will linger on in large part under his brother. (Although it also has to be a downer for Fidel to step down just months short of his golden anniversary in power.) Jose "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, which backs the trade embargo, said Fidel's departure "opens a new chapter in Cuban history," but stresses that "we have to see what the successors of Fidel Castro are going to do with these opportunities they [now] have. Now they don't have any excuses, [and] if they are not forthcoming [with reform] our opinion is the Cuban people will force them out."

But Jake Colvin, director of the Washington-based USA*Engage, which supports dismantling the embargo, insists the resignation "brings a new urgency for President Bush to show that America is open to a different relationship with Cuba. If we do not, the U.S. risks alienating another generation of Cubans and pushing the Cuban government farther into the arms of countries like Venezuela and China."

Venezuela, which possess the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, may actually weigh more heavily today on Raul's mind than the U.S. In recent years Venezuela's left-wing, radically anti-U.S. President, Hugo Chavez, a fervent Fidel admirer, has helped prop up Cuba's economy with almost 100,000 daily barrels of cut-rate crude. Chavez, however, is deeply suspicious of, if not antagonistic to, Raul's economic reform intentions. "Raul has to play ball with the Venezuelans," says Latell. "He has no one else to turn to right now."

Perhaps. But as Hernandez points out, Raul also has to deal with the heightened reform expectations he's planting in the minds of younger Cubans like Eliecer Avila. In the end, he may have little choice but to keep turning to them — which would be good news for Cuba, the U.S. and everyone else this small Caribbean island has captivated for the past 50 years. With reporting by Dolly Mascarenas/Mexico City and Siobhan Morrissey/Miami

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