Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Raúl Castro marks first year as Cuba's leader


The Miami Herald

BY FRANCES ROBLES
frobles@MiamiHerald.com

It's been a busy first year in office for Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who has met with up to a dozen presidents from around the world as Latin America took bolder steps decidedly to the left.

Recent pictures captured the global moments -- Castro in Moscow, posing with a Russian Orthodox patriarch, or at a photo op at the presidential palace in Algiers. There's another one of him flanked by the honor guard in Havana with the president of Namibia at his side.

As Cuba struggled with economic realities that included back-to-back devastating storms, the nation took a strong stand bolstering its foreign policy agenda. While Cuba-watchers in the United States dithered about how often Cuban-Americans should be allowed to visit relatives on the island, a stream of the most important leaders in the region -- including the presidents of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador -- made trips to Havana.

''Raúl Castro's foreign policy outreach has been truly impressive,'' said Daniel P. Erikson, author of the recent book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution. ``Cuba played host to close to every president of a major rising power and improved relations with Latin America. The Cubans are not expecting major changes from the United States, so they are focusing on building other alliances.''

Tuesday marks one year with Castro officially at Cuba's helm as president. His year at the top saw his nation's benefactor Hugo Chávez win a referendum in Venezuela that could allow him to stay in power indefinitely. Russia's presence in the region grew considerably as El Salvador's leftists gained ground in upcoming elections. Guatemala's leader recently apologized to Cuba for that country's role in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Bolivians took a bigger step toward creating a socialist state by approving a new constitution that empowers the indigenous majority.

While U.S. law keeps Cuba isolated, other countries have cozied up to Cuba to take advantage not just of its nickel reserves -- some of the largest in the world -- but its seemingly endless parade of doctors who do mission work overseas. Getting closer to Cuba's transition of power allows Latin American leaders to demonstrate independence from the United States and seek a competitive advantage, Erikson said.

Washington meanwhile has remained mum on how U.S. policy may be modified in the face of new leaders both here and on the island, even as widespread speculation expects President Barack Obama to make broad sweeping changes.

Obama campaigned on the promise that he would lift restrictions that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting more than every three years and said he would remove the cap on how much money Cubans could send their relatives each month in remittances. Many people believe that signals an end to the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, which would require an act of Congress.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week issued a report that says the U.S. policy of shunning communist Cuba should be reevaluated, the Washington Post reported this weekend. A month into his term, Obama has yet to tackle Cuba policy.

''I don't think we are as relevant in Cuba's decision-making as we were five years ago,'' said U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass), who has visited Cuba several times. ``I don't think the Cubans are as focused on relations with the U.S. as they once were. Why? Because they have multiple options.''

But if Castro has a fat array of options internationally, his prospects domestically have been considerably leaner.

He began his year in office with a succession of cosmetic consumer moves that gave Cubans more purchasing rights. The decision to allow things like hotel stays, cellular phones and DVD players were much welcomed, but created an expectation that more profound measures would follow.

Castro did revamp the agriculture industry to dole out land to farmers, in what most experts say is the most serious structural reform in recent memory. But the three hurricanes that hit Cuba this summer forced Castro to spend the second half of the year focused on recovery, not reforms.

''I expected him to do even less. I didn't think he would move quite so quickly on agriculture,'' said Cuban military expert Hal Klepak, a Canadian academic who lives in Havana. `You must keep in mind that they are not going to let this get out of control. This is not going to be 1989 Czechoslovakia. This is 2009 Cuba, and there's reform, but it's not going to undermine the revolution.''

Erikson noted that although Castro promised more economic reforms than he delivered, he made a series of moves that signaled a more moderate political stance. He signed United Nations treaties, commuted death sentences, and the number of political prisoners in Cuba dropped by at least 100 since Fidel Castro first took ill in 2006.

''I think Raúl is someone careful, serious, smart -- not charismatic and he knows it,'' said Erikson, who is speaking Tuesday night at Books and Books in Coral Gables. ``He has proven to be a serious-minded, competent leader. But ultimately for Raúl Castro, he is not going to match his brother's 49 years.''

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