Archive for Sunday, August 13, 2006

Some countries - even U.S.- may be wary of change in Cuba

August 13, 2006


— Watching the latest events in Cuba from this part of the world, one gets the sense that the international community - perhaps including the United States - will be in no great hurry to seek a rapid transition to democracy on the island.

While many countries say they would like to see an economic and political opening in Cuba after Fidel Castro's July 31 decision to cede power to his brother Raul, most governments may be more dominated by fear of chaotic change than motivated by the desire for democracy in Cuba.


¢ Mercosur, the left-leaning regional bloc made up of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, is increasingly dependent on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the staunchest supporter of the Cuban dictatorship in the region. Because of oil-rich Venezuela's growing influence, and because most presidents in the region don't want to antagonize their leftist supporters at home, Mercosur is not likely to press for swift democratic changes.

In the Argentine press, Castro is affectionately referred to by his first name, "Fidel," a deference made to very few world leaders. In second reference, he is always referred to as "the Cuban leader" (a generous title that, by the way, is also used by most U.S. media, despite the fact that no dictionary has a definition of "dictator" that wouldn't fit Castro).

According to a recent poll by Barometro Ibero-Americano, Castro is seen "with sympathy" by 67 percent of Ecuadoreans, 46 percent of Argentines and 45 percent of Brazilians.

While support for the aging ruler drops to only 33 percent of Venezuelans, 30 percent of Chileans and 26 percent of Mexicans, Castro backers tend to belong to militant groups that governments don't want to have as enemies.

"Nobody is in any hurry to see big changes in Cuba," said Emilio Cardenas, a former Argentine ambassador to the United Nations. "For the time being, this may translate into support for Raul."

¢ Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean countries that depend heavily on U.S. tourism know that an opening in Cuba will sooner or later lead to an avalanche of American tourists to the island. Most would like that moment to come as late as possible.

About two million foreign tourists visit Cuba annually, compared with 3.5 million to the Dominican Republic, 1.5 million to the Bahamas, 1.4 million to Jamaica and 2.3 million to Cancun, Mexico.

According to John Kavulich, a senior analyst with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Cuba could get an additional one million tourists a year within four years after a lifting of U.S. travel sanctions to the island and many more if Cuba expands its hotel capacity from then on.

In addition to that, Mexico may tone down its support for democracy in Cuba as a result of its domestic political crisis following the contested July 2 elections. If Felipe Calderon, the center-right candidate who won the official vote count, is confirmed as president-elect and takes office Dec. 1, he will form a coalition government with the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has traditionally supported the Cuban regime.

¢ The Bush administration, while officially supporting a "rapid, peaceful transition to democracy" on the island, may not want to open a new front at a time when it is facing a major crisis in the Middle East, mounting problems in Iraq and a looming threat from North Korea. If pressed to choose between democracy and stability in Cuba, it will opt for the latter.

And former U.S. officials tell me that one of the greatest U.S. priorities will be to prevent a massive stampede of Cubans to the United States like the 1980 Mariel boatlift. This is particularly true when we are only months away from the November congressional elections, and the Republican Party could lose badly needed votes in the event of a Cuban migration crisis, they say.

My conclusion: If Fidel Castro disappears from Cuba's political scene, or if he returns as a ceremonial ruler, there will be no major outside pressures for democratic changes on the island. Which may not be bad, as long as the world doesn't turn its back on peaceful internal oppositionists once they decide to take to the streets and demand their fundamental freedoms.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is


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