Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Castro handover seen unlikely to change US policy

The Washington Post

By Saul Hudson
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 11:15 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is unlikely to heed calls to loosen its embargo against Cuba that are expected to intensify following President Fidel Castro's temporary transfer of power to his brother.

A State Department official said there would be no change in policy toward Cuba, whether Castro or his brother Raul were in charge, because of American laws restricting U.S. dealings with the communist government.

"This is one of our most regimented policies. Our hands are tied by laws," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he wanted to avoid preempting more senior officials' public comments that are expected later on Tuesday.

The United States has a detailed plan to push Cuba toward democracy, but its measures, such as technical assistance to election authorities and money for non-governmental groups, cannot be implemented unless Cuban officials request it.

"Raul's communist history means he's not likely to be calling us for help," the official said.

Castro said in a "proclamation" read out by an aide on state television that he was leaving his 75-year-old brother in charge while he recovered from intestinal surgery, which medical experts said was a risky procedure for a 79-year-old.

The policy followed by successive U.S. administrations and backed by the powerful lobby of Cuban-Americans in the sometimes pivotal electoral state of Florida is widely seen to have failed to undermine Castro.

Critics of the four-decade-old embargo, including some U.S. Congress members, foreign governments and political analysts, say Washington should engage Cuba to encourage better human rights and political change, as with other communist-run countries like China.


The American food industry has won the biggest concession from U.S. administrations and is allowed to export to Cuba, helping to make the United States one of Cuba's top trade partners despite the embargo.

Reps. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, and William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, who head a 50-strong bipartisan group in Congress opposing the U.S. Cuba policy, have also sought to loosen the embargo.

Worried that competitors such as China are moving into the market, they have proposed legislation that would permit U.S. energy companies to partner with Cuba to drill in the waters of an island roughly 90 miles from the United States.

But congressional aides hold little hope the legislation will pass because most lawmakers are leery of shifting such a long-standing policy that is highly emotive for many voters in Florida who hate the repression they see against relatives.

That sentiment was reflected by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and one of the toughest proponents of keeping an embargo that severely restricts Americans' travel to Cuba and blocks investment in its lucrative tourism industry.

"It is a marvelous moment for the millions of Cubans who live under his iron fisted rule and oppressive state machinery. I hope this is the beginning of the end for his despised regime," she said.

Larry Birns, a Bush critic at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said such passion echoed an ideology in the Bush administration that would prevent any rethinking of U.S. policy because of Castro's surgery.

"The farm lobby and those lawmakers representing oil will use this moment of change to up the pressure, he said. "But the Bush administration will not budge because of its unrelenting hostility toward the Cuban government, regardless of whether the first name of its leader is Fidel or Raul."

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