End of Castro Era Fuels Embargo Speculation, But U.S. Reform Policy Will Remain Firm

Arrival of Cuban Cigars - or Anything Else - Has a Long Way to Go

Considering the vast influence that the revolutionary Communist leader has wielded over the citizens of Cuba for nearly 50 years, Fidel Castro’s low-key announcement that he was permanently resigning as president of Cuba’s Council of State due to health issues illicited muted response, both in Cuba and here at home among Cuban Americans.

But then for nearly two years, Fidel’s illness had already resulted in the temporary ceding of power to his brother Raúl - considered by some as a potential reformer who dabbled in straying from party lines only to remain under the watchful - and often critical - eye of Fidel.

A carefully orchestrated transition of power has already been in the planning, even if its outcome is far from determined. Lest the world forget, however, that the change of president means little if 50 years of policies remain firmly in place. Unless the economic, social, and political systems in Cuba change, the U.S. - at least under its current administration and Congress - is in no position to change its policy. All eyes remain on Havana.

Make no mistake, to lift the economic embargo will require a vast amount of change. Without it, talk of major U.S. policy changes towards Cuba is all but moot at this juncture. With the passage of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, control of America’s economic sanctions was essentially shifted from the U.S. president to congress, and a long litany of strict conditions spelled out that would have to be met in order to relax or lift the trade embargo. The original sanctions, implemented piecemeal of the course of years, were formalized into law in 1992 by the Torricelli Act, also known as the Cuban Democracy Act, which also spelled out specific sanctions that could be more readily reversed than the provisions of Helms-Burton. Banning even food and medicine shipments from the United States, outlawing U.S. subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba, and preventing ships that docked in Cuba from entering U.S. ports for 180 days, the Torricelli Act firmly entrenched American resolve to take a hard line.

To lift the embargo, the U.S. president would have to prove to congress that Cuba is in a full-blown transition to a democracy, determined by a lengthy list of rules.

“The legislation is in place and will be in place with this administration,’’ Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, told the Miami Herald. “This administration will not change until Cuba changes.’’

Yet, there is plenty of reason to believe that a mild thawing of relations and even a chipping away at sanctions is possible, according to knowledgeable observers. Dismantling the Toricceli Act could be a conceivable option under a new U.S. Congress. And with Fidel Castro out of power for the first time in 50 years, there is the opportunity and potential for real change in Cuba, where citizens’ first hope is for economic reform. The 81-year-old revolutionary is expected to remain a powerful voice as long as he lives. But for the first time, the world will see whether Cuba’s revolutionary communist ideals hold strong under the absence of its mastermind, or if the call for change - long repressed - will venture forth.

E. Edward Hoyt III