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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

After Fidel

CUBAN President Fidel Castro's resignation, made public Tuesday, has set off speculation as to its meaning both for Cuba and for American relations.

The short answer probably is: very little.

Unless something unexpected happens during the selection of a new president on Sunday, Fidel's brother Raul, who has been acting as president since the elder leader, now 81, turned seriously ill in 2006, will succeed him as president. That almost certainly means basically no change in Cuban government policies.

There is some thought that Raul, no youngster at 76, has wanted to make some small changes in the nearly two years that he has been nominally in control, but that they have been scotched by Fidel - or those who write letters for Fidel. The rest of that line of reasoning is that, once he is installed formally as president, Raul will be able to make changes.

The problem with that argument is that as long as Fidel lives, his reputation and legendary charisma mean that he will still have the last word in Cuba, no matter who is president.

Ironically, that would almost validate the head-in-the-sand, exile-dictated, U.S. policy on Cuba of the last five decades, which has amounted to simply waiting for Fidel to die.

One change in U.S. policy has occurred, largely in defiance of President Bush's desire to tighten the screws on the island rather than seek dialogue. U.S. exports to Cuba in certain areas, largely agriculture, have increased and last year stood at an estimated $500 million. That despite the fact that the Cubans have to pay cash for American goods.

The shift in presidents from Fidel to Raul could serve as the basis for a new U.S. policy, but that is unlikely, particularly in a presidential election year when candidates are grasping for campaign contributions and votes from Cuban-Americans.

The carefully nuanced, evasive statements of the candidates bear out that assessment.

What the United States should have done years ago with respect to Cuba is engage it economically, culturally, and politically, and let nature take its course in terms of reforming the Caribbean country. Use of U.S. military force as an instrument of change in Cuba failed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and was ruled out, probably definitively, by the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

In the haste to establish open relations with Cuba, it must not be forgotten that Fidel is not, and never was, the relatively benign figure many Americans today perceive him to be. He came to power with the blood of mass executions on his hands.

Even some of those who helped him overthrow the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista almost a half-century ago felt his wrath. One was William Morgan, a Toledoan who became the "Yanqui Comandante" of the Cuban revolution. When Morgan fell out of favor, Fidel had him shot by a firing squad in 1961, at the age of 32, his story largely forgotten until it was recalled by The Blade in a 2002 series.

We fully expect the winds of change to sweep Cuba after Fidel, but a truly new era may take some time. Certainly, it will be one more foreign-affairs challenge for a new U.S. president with a fresh mandate in early 2009.



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