What Castro Wants

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Cuban President Fidel Castro waves a Cuban flag at a rally in Havana

When U.S. Congressman Jeff Flake visited Havana recently, promoting legislation to let Americans travel freely to Cuba, Fidel Castro had his top aides meet with Flake to ask whether the measure could really pass. "Yes," Flake said, "and tell Castro that if he doesn't behave, we're going to bring down the whole darn embargo!"

Everyone laughed, but it wasn't altogether a joke. The not so well-kept secret in Havana is that Castro, 75, has always been a fan of the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against his communist island. El bloqueo, as Cubans call the "blockade," has helped Castro deflect blame for his economic blunders. Whenever the U.S. has looked poised to end the embargo, Castro has managed to unleash an outrage that has kept it alive, as in 1996, when his air force shot down and killed four Cuban exiles from Miami flying unarmed small planes near Havana.

But lately there has been a seismic shift in his thinking that could accelerate the anti-embargo movement in Washington and open the doors to hundreds of thousands of American visitors to Cuba each year. Sources close to the Cuban leader confide that in the past year, he has been feeling uncharacteristic pangs of regret about the island's wrecked economy and what it will say about his legacy as a 20th century populist icon. As a result, they say, Castro is finally, genuinely behind the anti-embargo push and doesn't want to botch it. "He knows this is the wave to be on now," says a high-ranking Cuban official.

How else can you explain, Castro confidants ask, why he didn't explode when Washington dumped hundreds of al-Qaeda prisoners at the U.S. naval base on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay this year? And why didn't he burn like a lighted Cohiba last week when visiting ex-President Jimmy Carter lectured about human rights on live Cuban TV and urged Castro to respect a referendum bid by dissidents seeking more freedoms? Because he knew Carter would make an equally strong call for the U.S. to lift the embargo.

No one expects Castro to significantly soften his autocratic rule. But his new posture could complicate things for George W. Bush. Like Flake, most congressional Representatives now believe U.S. engagement is the best way to foster democracy in Cuba. But Bush and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, are politically beholden to such figures as Armando Perez Roura, the patriarch of Miami's rabidly anti-Castro Radio Mambi. Perez, 74, still mobilizes more of Florida's half a million Cuban votes than any other exile leader. Those votes went to Bush I and later to Bush II, whose controversial, narrow victory owed no small debt to Don Armando. The Bushes repay him with their staunch support of the embargo, even though polls show that almost 40% of Cuban Americans now favor lifting it.

In Miami this week, just as Jeb is kicking off his re-election bid, President Bush is expected to announce even tighter sanctions against Cuba, including a crackdown on nearly 100,000 Americans who illegally go to Cuba each year. Any U.S. tourism and trade with Cuba, insists White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, "benefits only the repressive regime in Cuba." But Flake's amendment to allow U.S. travel to Cuba and a similar Senate measure are expected to pass this summer, both with ample G.O.P. backing.

That may well spawn other reforms, such as allowing Cuba access to U.S. credit to buy American food and medicine. "U.S. business, tourism and farm-state politics are overtaking Miami politics on this issue," says Flake, an Arizona Republican. Florida political analysts say the Bushes want to maintain a hard line, at least until the gubernatorial election in November. But with even Fidel turning against the embargo, the Bush brothers may have less time than they thought.

--With reporting by Dolly Mascarenas/Havana