TOPICS : With Cuba changing, how should US react?

W ith Fidel Castro currently, and perhaps permanently, not controlling events in Cuba, how should the US react?

If there is one thing on which many Cuba-watchers seem to agree, it is that we will not see a seamless succession to Castro’s brother, Raúl. With or without Raúl, a transition will take place, the shape of which will involve changes not yet clear.

What the US would like to see is a dramatic shift away from dictatorial rule, with Cuba emerging as a democracy with a robust free-market economy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House spokesman Tony Snow have stressed this in public statements. Concern about Cuba’s future has been heightened in US since left-leaning Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez succeeded Russia as Cuba’s patron and saviour, finding common political cause with Fidel, and propping up Cuba’s ailing economy with subsidised Venezuelan oil.

How can the US encourage reform and democracy in Cuba? First, by encouraging a free information flow to a country whose citizens have long been subjected to censorship and propaganda. The US government has for some time been working on plans to not only encourage the freedom movement in Cuba today, but to support a democratic transition tomorrow. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba made initial recommendations in 2004 and, under the chairmanship of Rice, updated them last month. Though some of the report’s findings are classified, others in the public domain include recommendations for support to Cuba in the aftermath of transition. If requested, the US would provide humanitarian aid. It would help Cubans get to free and fair elections and reorganise their economy.

State department planners are wisely counting on the international community’s involvement in hastening elections and accelerating Cuba’s reintegration into the world’s economy. This would lend credibility to the process. It should not be seen as a narrow, American go-it-alone effort. The commission says Cubans living abroad could provide “much-needed resources in the form of information, research, and know-how, as well as remittances, loans, and investment capital.”

One imponderable in the process of transition would be the attitude of the Cuban Army. Cubans close to the officer corps say it is politically stratified by rank. The generals are revolutionary comrades of Castro, dedicated to retaining their authority and perquisites. The colonels and lieutenant colonels, usually trained by the Soviets, see themselves as military professionals, possibly dutiful to civilian direction. The captains and lieutenants are suspicious of communism and are more aware of the people’s discontent.

From his sickbed, Castro is purported to have declared his confidence that the revolution he created will live on. While he wielded repre-ssive power for 47 years, his charisma fuelled the revolution at home and dazzled fellow dictators around the world. Now comes the time of reckoning. — The Christian Science Monitor