The long list of threats to U.S. national security grew last Wednesday evening in the blink of an eye, when a 78-year-old man missed a step and tumbled to the ground in Cuba.

Although, to the chagrin of many, Fidel Castro survived his fall, gravity and the fragility of septuagenarian bones left him with a broken knee and arm. As such breaks often signal the beginning of the end for the elderly, Castro’s fall raises the specter, at long last, of his imminent departure from power.

Cuba, the United States, and the international community are, however, terribly ill-prepared to deal with Castro’s death.

That Cuba is ill-prepared is attributable to one man and one man alone – Fidel Castro. Three internal phenomena, all of Castro’s making, threaten to plunge Cuba into chaos upon his death.

First, Castro’s 44-year zeal in eliminating alternative leadership has left no viable successor, his officially designated successor and brother Raul notwithstanding, who could hold a fractious society together during a difficult transition. Second, Castro’s insistence on failed economic policies has razed the Cuban economy and undermined the few social benefits of the Cuban Revolution. Third, Castro’s totalitarian practices have resulted in a decimated civil society in which no two Cubans fully trust one another.

Taken together, these failings make a post-Castro Cuba an 11.3 million person powder keg located 90 miles from U.S. shores that will necessitate skillful transition management.

Blinded by a singular obsession with promoting regime change, U.S. policy both has created the conditions for an abundance of potential sparks to ignite the keg and left the United States ill-positioned to help extinguish an explosion. For example, the last, most comprehensive legal framework for U.S.-Cuba policy – the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, also known as Helms-Burton – places the U.S. government squarely in the camp of the Cuban exile community on one of the likeliest flash points in any transition – conflicting property claims between the exiles and Cubans on the island. At the same time, the statute’s transition provisions place prohibitive conditions on U.S. assistance that will relegate the U.S. government to the sidelines until a transition is complete.

Similarly, the Bush administration’s rollback earlier this year of travel and remittances from the United States to Cuba was a short-sighted attempt to increase pressure on the Castro regime that did nothing to account for what would happen in the event of success. It also contributed to a potentially explosive transition by creating greater distance – rather than cooperation and understanding – between Cubans on either side of the Florida Straits.

Repeated efforts by the United States to force the international community into joining its embargo have not only isolated the United States from the rest of the world with respect to Cuba, but also pose serious impediments to effective transition management. Attempts to multilateralize the Cuba embargo through economic coercion – such as by prohibiting the entry into U.S. ports of any ship that trades with Cuba and sanctioning companies that do business in Cuba – also could undermine efforts to achieve effective international cooperation in dealing with a sudden transition.

The need to build international cooperation is made all the more important by the current tenuous nature of international institutions that might otherwise help to manage a transition. The Organization of American States, for example, is itself struggling with leadership and transformation issues, and is unlikely to be strong enough to play an effective role in a transition.

During the past 12 years, the United States has systematically isolated itself from the Cuban people, sided with those elements of the Cuban exile community transfixed on settling decades-old scores, ignored the vital role Cubans on the island must play in any transition, and disregarded the importance of preparing for life after regime change. That policy trajectory must change before it is too late.

As Castro’s fall underscores, regime change in Cuba is likely to be the result of nature running its course rather than outside influences taking their toll. It is time for the United States to focus on what comes after Castro and take basic steps to get ahead of any transition in Cuba. To that end, the United States should:

  • Immediately rescind the travel and remittance rollbacks and expand contacts and travel between the United States and Cuba;
  • Repeal those portions of U.S. law that either pre-judge or purport to place in the hands of U.S. decision-makers the outcome of property disputes in Cuba;
  • Revise those portions of the Helms-Burton law that establish conditions for U.S. assistance to a post-Castro Cuba to reflect more realistic terms upon which the United States can provide transition assistance; and
  • Empower the president to waive, at his discretion, those provisions of U.S. law that form an impediment to international cooperation in managing a Cuba transition.

It took a team of doctors three hours to repair the recent damage to Castro’s skeleton. It will take far longer to rectify U.S. policy toward Cuba and effectively manage any Cuba transition. We must start before it is too late.

Dan Restrepo has worked on U.S.-Cuba policy issues since the early 1990s and is the director of congressional affairs at the Center for American Progress.




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Dan Restrepo

Senior Fellow