Can Castro Handle Carter?

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Jimmy Carter listens to Fidel Castro during a presentation in Havana

Jimmy Carter's Havana visit represents the accelerated privatization" of U.S. Cuba policy, prompted by a belief that Washington's official stance remains paralyzed by Florida electoral calculations. Those calculations mean that, whatever the outcome of Carter's visit, President Bush is expected to announce a tightening up of the four-decade-old U.S. embargo next Monday. There's scant support for continued sanctions in the U.S. foreign policy, defense, intelligence or business establishment, much less among Washington's allies in Latin America — or even among Cuba's small dissident community. But no matter how much it's questioned in the realm of foreign policy, the embargo is considered sound domestic politics. President Clinton tightened it early in 1996, not because anyone in his administration believed it was a rational policy, but simply in order to appeal to a powerful swing-state political machine ahead of his reelection campaign. And with Florida having been the key to President Bush's own election, nobody has been expecting anything that would alienate Miami's powerful Cuban exile community.

But even as Washington's policy remains static, Cuban reality may be on the cusp of significant changes. Fidel Castro, who turned 75 last summer, may have outlasted nine U.S. presidents and everything from exploding cigars to botched invasions, but he cannot outwit time. Nor can the socialist economy he built largely on Soviet handouts resist the unsentimental forces of globalization that rule the post-Cold War world.

Castro has raised the question of his own succession in public for more than a year now, and his invitation to Carter may be a sign that he's preparing the ground for a rapprochement between his successors and the old enemy. Castro's own idea of his succession involves handing over the commander-in-chief job to his brother Raul, who currently heads up the military. But Fidel is not expecting the charisma-challenged Raul to be the same sort of personality-cult leader as himself, and has already transferred much of the day-to-day running of government into the hands of a younger generation of leaders such as National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Council of Ministers Secretary Carlos Lage, and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. Absent the strong hand of the "maximum leader," his successors may be more inclined to govern more collectively. The real question, however, is whether and how they'll try to open up their economy and political system. And the pressure to do both is mounting.

The Cuban economy has struggled since the collapse of its Soviet patron, and the recent coup attempt on Castro's Venezuelan ally President Hugo Chavez — in which Havana's lifeline to cheap oil was briefly cut — was a reminder of Cuba's continued vulnerability. The growing presence of European, Canadian and Latin American investors and the government's see-sawing policy toward small Cuban entrepreneurs signals the inevitability of capitalist reforms.

Politically, too, the pressure is on. Longtime Latin American ally Mexico recently deserted Cuba to support a U.N. condemnation of Havana's repressive human rights record. Even more significant may have been an unprecedented domestic challenge to the government over the past week, in the form of the Varela initiative. The organizers have operated within their rights defined by the Cuban constitution and collected 11,000 signatures on a petition to the legislature calling for a referendum on freedom of speech, amnesty for political prisoners, the creation of private businesses and electoral reforms. Cuban law now requires that the National Assembly debate the proposal.

While it remains extremely unlikely that the Varela demands would be adopted, it's a sign of an emerging civil society in Cuba challenging the communist party's monopoly on power. That's a development that has been consciously encouraged by the Catholic Church in the years since Pope John Paul II's historic 1998 visit. And for now, at least, Castro appears inclined to reluctantly tolerate such activity. His objective in doing so may be simply to create a veneer of acceptability for his regime in the face of human rights criticisms, but the process may nonetheless set in motion forces beyond the control of the communist party.

Castro's inevitable, and perhaps imminent departure from the scene ought to be good news for those in Miami who've fought him for decades, but it also creates something of a crisis for them — as well as for Washington. Right now neither Washington nor Miami have much access to the political dynamic on the island that will play a significant role in shaping post-Castro Cuba. The Varela project caught Castro unawares, but it may have done the same to the Miami leadership. And while the Miami leadership has made maintaining the embargo the centerpiece of their activism, most of the Cuba-based dissidents tend to oppose it

Yet it is the hard-line Miami view, rather than the perspective of the island-based activists, that tends to sway U.S. policy. In a move widely characterized as a nod to the exile leadership, a Bush administration official last week suggested that Cuba may be developing biological weapons and exporting the technology to do so to some of Washington's least-loved regimes. Carter punctured that particular balloon by pointing out that the U.S. intelligence officials who'd provided "intense" briefings before his trip had assured him, even when he specifically asked, that there was no evidence of Cuba sharing information that could be used by terrorists. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell found himself tamping down the allegations, saying "we didn't say (Cuba) actually had some weapons, but it has the capacity and capability to conduct such research." Indeed, as does any nation with a pharmaceutical industry.

Back at home, President Carter's visit will likely inflame debate between those who believe the embargo will help bring down Castro and those who believe it actually props him up and denies the U.S. any political influence on processes already underway that could shape post-Castro Cuba. More interesting, perhaps, will be its impact in Cuba. After all, the state propaganda machine in Havana will have little trouble packaging whatever denunciations President Bush utters in Miami next week — they'll simply be cited as further evidence of the "external threat" that Castro uses to rally Cubans, much as he did during the Elian Gonzales saga. But how that same propaganda machine will deal with a live broadcast of Jimmy Carter extending a hand of friendship at the same time as urging Cuba to embrace freedom and democracy remains to be seen.