Thursday, March 29, 2007

State Department Perspective

Fidel Castro still controls Cuba: U.S.

Wed Mar 21, 2007 5:31PM EDT
By Arshad Mohammed and Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Convalescing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is still in control of the country and repression has increased during the rule of his younger brother Raul, a top U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday.

"Fidel Castro remains a ... controlling political presence," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said in an interview at the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit.

Castro stepped down last July 31 after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery, but Shannon said Cuba's human rights record has since deteriorated as the government appeared to be trying to fend off any push for change.

"One thing that we have noted during this transfer-of-power period is that repression has increased," he said. "It's very important for ... these new governors -- if you want to call them that -- to show that they are in control and that they can manage the regime and that they can manage the Cuban state and that they cannot challenged."

Castro is thought to have suffered from diverticulitis, or inflamed bulges in the large intestine, though his exact condition is a state secret in Cuba.

The last significant Cold War player to defy the United States, Castro handed power to his brother Raul when he stepped aside almost eight months ago.


While Raul Castro has voiced a willingness to talk to the United States, Shannon suggested the United States would consider such a dialogue only as Cuba moved toward peaceful, democratic change.

"There is nothing new on that front because ... since Fidel Castro remains this ... controlling presence it means that Raul and the people around him are kind of frozen. There is not a lot that they can do," said Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America.

He said Washington wanted to see clear signs of change, including a release of political prisoners.

"Any positive step would be welcome ... We have made it clear that our engagement will be determined by change in Cuba and that the degree to which the Cubans show a willingness to take positive steps, we'll respond to it," Shannon added, without saying how such steps would be rewarded.

There is a move in the U.S. Congress to ease some travel and possibly some trade restrictions against Cuba. Such efforts have, however, failed in the past.

Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro seized power in a revolution and turned Cuba into a Soviet ally.

Communications were restored with the opening of low-level diplomatic missions called interest sections in 1978. But a strict U.S. embargo remains in place.

Shannon said the United States was looking for additional ways to boost the opposition in Cuba but this was difficult.

"It's a difficult period for the opposition because they don't know what direction the Cuban regime is going to stake out for the future," he said.

He also said countries that have relationships with Cuba, such as Canada and Spain, should underscore to Havana the need for change.

© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved.

Is State now prepared to see a difference between Raul and Fidel, either really or for the sake of convenience? Does this create space for a new policy when Fidel is not present, or at least definitively not in charge, in contrast with past juvenile pronouncements that Raul was "Fidel light"? Is there in the works a non-"regime change" road map to more normal relations?

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