Cuba's new collective leadership raises possibility of change, both on island and for U.S.

Friday, September 1st 2006, 1:10 pm
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ On the surface, life in Cuba remains utterly normal a month after Fidel Castro ceded power for the first time in 47 years.

But behind the scenes, an emerging collective leadership is increasing the possibilities for change on the communist-ruled island, and bringing a fresh look at U.S. policies aimed at undermining the Cuban system.

Raul Castro is beginning to show his leadership as acting president while his brother rests from intestinal surgery, and Carlos Lage, another member of the collective, is being featured more prominently in state media. Both have been more inclined than Fidel to open up Cuba's communist economy.

And in a statement much analyzed by Cuba watchers, Raul Castro said he supports normalizing relations with the United States _ but only if the Americans stop trying to determine how Cuba is governed.

The U.S. government's latest ``transition'' plan assumes ``a more active civil society'' and a ``growing sense of frustration among ordinary Cubans'' on the island will help hasten change, especially after Fidel Castro, now 80, is gone.

But while pressure to alleviate daily economic struggles is increasing _ a reality Raul Castro will have to face _ calm has reigned under the 75-year-old defense minister's leadership. And with the Cuban government running smoothly, attention is shifting to whether the U.S. might change its long-standing focus on pushing out the Castro government.

``If Raul Castro decides to make some serious changes in Cuba, that would immediately knock the props from under the existing policy of the United States,'' said Mark Falcoff, resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

Some Cuban dissidents, from the moderate Oscar Espinosa Chepe to the more strident Martha Beatriz Roque, say Raul may listen to younger government leaders and allow more private enterprise. Even modest economic openings could lead to increased political freedoms, they say.

While Raul strongly embraces the primacy of the communist party, he has shown a willingness to experiment with a freer economy.

Raul expressed interest in China's model of capitalist reform with one-party political control during a November 1997 visit. And it was Raul who announced in 1994 that farmers markets were being set up to allow the island's growers to sell crops for whatever price they could get, introducing more Cubans to private enterprise.

Lage, in turn, was involved in other reforms that helped Cuba survive economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off substantial subsidies. The changes allowed trade in U.S. dollars and foreign investment, spun off state farms into cooperatives and legalized hundreds of small private businesses.

Fidel Castro later retreated from many of those popular reforms, limiting self-employment licenses, imposing restrictions on farmers markets and removing the U.S. dollar from circulation. But despite unhappiness among many Cubans about the pullback, dramatic and rapid change here seems unlikely.

Current U.S. law forbids easing a decades-old embargo on trade and travel to Cuba while either Fidel or Raul is in power. Without congressional approval, these restrictions cannot be lifted unless Cuba embraces multiparty elections and a market economy.

But Cuba now gets enough support from Venezuela and China to keep its economy going, said Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982. ``I don't think they're going to make sweeping changes just to please the United States.''

And with Cubans failing to rise up as Fidel Castro is sidelined, U.S. officials have toned down their rhetoric.

``The idea that a little more of a shove and the Cuban regime was gone'' was wrong, Smith said. ``Nothing that they were predicting has happened, so they look quite foolish.''

While few expect Washington to embrace Cuba's new government, observers say U.S. officials may eventually be more open to talks with Raul Castro than his brother.

One sign of that came last week, when the Bush administration revived a 4-year-old proposal to lift its embargo if Cuba adopts democratic processes _ an offer Cuba rejected when Bush first made it in May 2002.

Under the proposal, the administration would consult with Congress on ending the embargo if Cuba releases political prisoners, protects human rights, legalizes political parties and creates ``a pathway'' to free elections, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said.

The recent statements from both Shannon and Raul Castro _ hinting at an opening while reiterating hard-line positions _ also reflect that both governments hope to avoid violence as Cuba prepares for life after Fidel.

For Falcoff, who wrote the book ``Cuba, The Morning After: Confronting Castro's Legacy,'' the problem for U.S. policy lies in a deep contradiction.

``On one hand, we say we want regime change, that we want Cuba to wake up one morning and be like (democratic, capitalist) Costa Rica,'' Falcoff said. ``But even more than that, we want Cuba to not riot, to not have violence.''