Cuba's Road to Democracy?

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Raul Castro's rise to power, coming after five decades of Cuban rule by his older brother Fidel, has sparked calls for democratic change from observers in Cuba and in the United States.

For some, the political transition renews hopes for a freer and more civilized society in a communist nation that has been called the last holdout of communism in the western hemisphere.

For others, including many in the Cuban-American community, Raul offers little change from Fidel. He's seen as a Stalinist dictator, surrounding himself with communist cronies.

A Failed System or Failed Policy?

For decades, the Cuban people have lived in poverty on an island where the average worker's salary is estimated at $17 per month.

Shortages of food and medicine are commonplace. Residents are dependent on the government for food, jobs, homes, and salaries, and human rights.

The Bush Administration blames Cuban conditions on a failed communist system that brutally represses its people.

This month, President Bush met in the Oval Office with families of Cuban political prisoners. They are among 75 pro-democracy activists who in March 2003 were sentenced to 20 years in prison for participation in peaceful activities.

The White House says these activists, like other dissidents, were arrested for resisting the Castro regime in a crackdown known as "Black Spring." Fifty-five of the original 75 Cuban dissidents remain imprisoned.

Critics of current U.S. foreign policy call the nearly 50-year U.S. embargo against Cuba a policy failure. They're urging President Bush to scrap the isolationist embargo which failed to topple Castro's communist regime.

"The reason, ironically, they've been able to survive so long is that we've helped the state security services prevent the Cuban people from getting information, getting money, from talking as much as they should, and visiting as much as they should with people from the outside," said Vicki Huddleston with the Brookings Institution.

As a former State Department official, Huddleston headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana during the Clinton and part of the Bush Administrations. She says 76-year-old Raul is under pressure from his people to make reforms and now is the time to re-establish diplomatic channels with his new government.

"Exchange ambassadors like a normal country," she said. "Begin to talk to the Cuban government about migration, the environment, important to the U.S. national security and that we were doing at the beginning of the Bush Administration."

Sending the Right Message

When asked at a recent press conference why he refuses to to talk with Raul Castro, President Bush said such an action would send the wrong signals.

"What's lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What's lost is it will send the wrong message. It will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners," Bush said.

"It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity," he added. "Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, look at me, I'm now recognized by the President of the United States."

The President called aid it's a mistake to talk with Raul Castro until he shows concrete signs of democratic reforms.

"Now, somebody would say, well, I'm going to tell him to release the prisoners. Well, it's a theory that all you got to do is embrace and these tyrants act," Bush said. "That's not how they act. That's not what causes them to respond."

"And so I made a decision quite the opposite, and that is to keep saying to the Cuban people, we stand with you; we will not sit down with your leaders that imprison your people because of what they believe; we will keep an embargo on you; we do want you to have money from people here in the homeland, but we will stay insistent upon this policy until you begin to get free," he said.

Other experts agree that Castro must make the first move.

The U.S. embargo would ease only after genuine reforms are made, such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners, free speech, and fair elections, says Caleb McCarry, the President's senior official at the U.S. State Department overseeing Cuban democratic transition.

"Cubans would like to elect their own president directly, something that has not been allowed. They'd like to enjoy basic freedoms we enjoy in our country and enjoyed in other countries," McCarry said. "U.S. strategy is aimed at preventing American resources from strengthening a repressive regime, to ensure we are not supporting the continuation and consolidation of a dictatorship in Cuba, but rather to encourage process of real reform."

Making the First Move

Brookings Institute's Huddleston disagrees.

"The more you open up, the more you'll unbalance the regime," she said. She instead says the U.S, should first end the travel and communication embargo. Allowing Americans to visit Cuba would promote the exchange of information and speed the spread of democratic ideals.

"Anything that empowers the Cuban people. We're talking about building up democracy, so we want freedom of information, free flow of money, remittances to the Cuban people," Huddleston said.

But Jim Roberts with the Heritage Foundation said he believes allowing Americans to freely travel to Cuba would delay Democracy by enriching the communist leaders. Roberts served in Latin America as a State Department foreign officer for 25 years.

"Given the fact we have an embargo in place, We're not going to just give it away for nothing," he said.

"The regime earns all this money because it goes straight to them because they control everything, the totalitarian police state, command economy," Roberts said. "But if you give the regime a lifeline and lift the embargo, I think you're going to delay the changes that are really going to alleviate the suffering of the people."

Helping the Enemy?

Roberts said the U.S. would be propping up a regime that is a security threat and friendly with anti-American nations like Iran and Venezuela.

"The Cuban intelligence services is one of top six in the world," he said. "They gather intelligence against us and sell it to our enemies, and have been doing it for years. The Iranians buy it. The Chinese went down and revamped an old Soviet listening service in Cuba. They monitor our Internet and telephone traffic. People don't think about this. This is why we can't trust this regime."

But that is good reason to engage the Castro government now, before America becomes irrelevant, Huddleston says.

"Cuba has 4.6 billion barrels a day of proven, or supposed, oil reserves offshore," she said. "Now what happens in five years when that's exploited and the money comes into the top? That means the regime can become more powerful, security services can extend their control, the military can build up."

If there is to be any U.S. policy change toward post-Castro Cuba, it may be unlikely before the November elections. President Bush and the candidates vying for his office may not risk offending the Cuban American and their powerful political lobby.

*Original broadcast March 12, 2008.

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CBN News
Melissa Charbonneau

Melissa Charbonneau

CBN News White House Correspondent

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