This sure has been one hell of a week for Cuba news. A good friend of mine, Jamie Weinstein, interviewed me about the latest developments for his blog. Be sure to check it out. I’m pasting the post below.

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JW: Fidel Castro is stepping aside. What does this practically mean for Cuba?

MB: Before getting to what this means practically, one must acknowledge that this is a huge symbolic moment. In a way, it represents both a defeat and a victory for Fidel. It is a defeat in the sense that Fidel probably wanted to rule until his last dying breath. But it is a much more significant victory. His enemies have not defeated him or his Revolution. And he has been able to exit power on his own terms. The ambivalent response we saw in Miami to the news probably reflects this sobering fact. With a drop of the hat, Castro removed himself from power – something that traditional sectors of the Cuban American community have been trying to do for decades. Who wouldn’t be disappointed, dare I say humiliated?

As for the practical, I hesitate to suggest that this will mean much in the short run. Over the past year and a half since Fidel first transferred “provisional” powers to his brother Raul, Cuba’s government has significantly raised expectations by creating forums in which citizens can express their grievances. Of course, this is not real openness, as certain topics and themes (namely, political reform) remain decidedly off the table. Repression of human rights activists also continues, notwithstanding the release of 4 political prisoners to the Spanish government last week. But Cubans have expressed their frustration with the government’s economic ineptitude in eloquent and strident ways. This has led to much speculation that Raul is a reformer who recognizes the need for economic liberalization.Going into today’s “election” of Cuba’s new President of the Council of State by the National Assembly of People’s Power, many had hoped these “reformist” impulses would be reinforced. But instead, the Castros dealt us a surprise. 50-something year-old Carlos Lage, previously 3rd on the totem poll and well known to be an economic pragmatist, was demoted and essentially replaced by Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a historico from the Revolution’s early days, a conservative ideologue, and a close Fidel confidant.

What this means is not entirely clear. Given all the attention Lage had received internationally as a potential reformer, this move could be a way of simply saying, “hold your horses, we’re not moving so fast yet.” Whether Machado Ventura will try to hold up the movement toward greater economic openness remains to be seen. Raul Castro’s speech today still seemed to suggest that a push toward some kind of modest economic change is to come. So despite Lage’s apparent demotion, I think what we can expect to see if the coming year or so is a period of slow economic reform – starting in the agricultural sector, and perhaps extending to the liberalization of controls over some small businesses in urban areas. Greater political change – let alone democratization – is not on the horizon. And the dissident movement – both in Miami and on the island – is too disjointed, fractured, and infiltrated by Cuban state security to make much of a difference at this point.

JW: How do you expect Fidel’s departure from power will effect U.S.-Cuban relations, if at all?

MB: As long as Bush remains in office, U.S. policy will not change. And if McCain is elected, we can expect to see more of the status quo. He has the backing of the Cuban-American congressmen from Miami, which means that he will be unlikely to fiddle with the policy until Raul is out of power and the island sees significant progress toward genuine democratization. This of course is unlikely to happen, which means the U.S. will be caught in the same position it is now – that is, with little or no influence over developments in Cuba today.

What Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would do is slightly less clear. Obama has clearly stated that he will eliminate restrictions on remittances and Cuban-American family travel put in place by the Bush administration in 2004. Clinton now seems to support the same measures. But despite all of the punditry surrounding Obama’s statement that he would meet with Raul Castro without preconditions, the bigger piece of the pie – the embargo – is likely to remain untouched. It is important to remember that the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton law severely limited Presidential authority over the embargo by making the policy a legislative matter. In other words, according to law, the embargo cannot be lifted until a series of (frankly unrealistic) conditions are met. Nonetheless, the President can still tweak certain elements of the policy on the margins – educational travel, religious travel, remittance regulations, cultural exchanges, etc – so I would expect to see some movement on this front, especially if the Raul government does undertake some form of economic reform.

Then again, a lot also depends on congressional races in Miami. Currently, 2 of the 3 Republican hard-line Miami Congressmen are facing significant Democratic Cuban-American challengers. Although it is a longshot, if they were to unseat the incumbents, we might see a certain amount of legislative space open up. Regardless, any movement on U.S. policy is likely to be slow and incremental.

All that said, I was impressed with the relative lack of vitriol in the statement released by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice today. It is very matter of fact and, of course, hits all the notes of Bush’s policy of isolation. But nonetheless, it is a far cry from the bellicose rhetoric we heard from the Bush administration back in October, when the President said U.S. policy toward Cuba would always seek “freedom over stability.”

JW: What do we know about Raul? Are there any insights we have into how he will govern?

MB: As I mentioned above, Raul is thought to be a pragmatist. During the 1990s, when Cuba was at the bottom of his depression following the fall of the Soviet Union, it was Raul, not Fidel, who led the push toward allowing certain kinds of private economic activity and greater dealings with foreign investors. But Raul is also thought be quite cruel. Indeed, during the early years of the Revolution he was absolutely uncompromising with the Revolution’s enemies, and he probably remains so today. Economic opening may come in tortoise-like steps, but political reform is not on his agenda. Raul also lacks the charisma of his brother. He does not like to travel to international summits and flirt with foreign policy elites like his brother did. And he is thought to have an ambivalent relationship with Hugo Chavez – certainly an important figure to Cuba’s economic future given Venezuela’s HUGE oil subsidy to the island. Whereas previously the buck stopped with Fidel, Raul may have to govern more collectively.

JW: Even though he is stepping aside as President, will Castro still be a political player in Cuba?

MB: In a way. Interestingly, in today’s deliberations, Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power approved a measure that will allow Fidel to have a say on all “major decisions” in the country’s future. This may be a symbolic gesture with little practical significance, but it is more likely to mean that Fidel will still be involved in the political process, only in a less official capacity (keep in mind, he is retaining the title of Deputy to Cuba’s National Assembly). Frankly, I have a hard time imagining that Fidel would not seek some influence as long as he is alive. Enough close supporters – like Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque – remain in office and will ensure that his voice is heard. Fidel will also continue to publish the “reflections” that have become so commonplace on the front pages of Granma since he fell ill in 2006. In these writings, Fidel assumes the position of a kind of distanced intellectual, often writing about obscure topics but also commenting on contemporary affairs. Yet another way in which is voice will still be felt, and yet another way Fidel will continue to attempt to shape his legacy.

JW: Any other thoughts on Fidel’s departure that you would like to share?

MB: If anything the events of the past week confirm that the departure of Fidel, or even his death, are not likely to lead to the wholesale collapse of the Cuban communist system, as many in the Bush administration predicted as late as 2006-2007. Reform will be incremental and probably disappointing for those, like myself, who yearn for a day when the Cuban people will have a more effective stake in their country’s future and can leave behind the repression of the past. But in my mind, this strategic reality calls for a broad policy review. A majority of Cuban-Americans concede that the embargo has not worked. Our isolation of Cuba has only reinforced Cuban State Security’s desire to deprive Cuban citizens of information about life on the outside. And most importantly, the policy is a crutch on which the regime leans to justify its authoritarian control of Cuba’s domestic life. I too bristle at the thought of any unilateral opening from the U.S. being interpreted as conferring legitimacy or approval on the Cuban regime. But in the end, we have to start somewhere if we are ever to regain a measure of influence. Talking to our enemies does not mean we approve of them. The Israelis know this. The citizens of Belfast, Northern Ireland know this. We know it too.

Even if we keep some sanctions in place, liberalizing travel and remittances can help not only share information with Cubans and increase mutual understanding, but it can also help raise expectations within Cuba and even create independent sources of economic activity that will push against regime control. Yes, in the short run these contacts will funnel money to the government. But so did our outreach activities with the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. What we are talking about is a long-term proposition that requires a long-term vision, not one based on the moralizing rhetoric of U.S. Cuba policy over the past 50 years. Of course, one must recognize that neither has European engagement proven particularly successful in addressing the Cuban conundrum. But the hope is that a change in U.S. policy could bring the Europeans and Canadians on board with the human rights agenda in a more vocal way than has been possible in the past for domestic political reasons.

One final thought that I draw from the work of Jorge Piñon, an energy analyst at the University of Miami. Cuba has significant, but as yet unproven oil deposits off its northern coast, and in the regions of the Gulf of Mexico that it controls. The recent visit of Brazilian President Lula reinforces the notion that Cuba’s defunct sugar industry could be redirected toward ethanol. In short, within a period of 5 to 10 years, the Cuban government potentially will be several billion dollars richer. This will allow it to free itself of dependence on Venezuelan oil – certainly a good thing. But as we know, energy industries are not particularly labor intensive. In other words, a form of top-down resource distribution that we see in many oil-rich states could be reinforced, diminishing the urgency for reforms that lead to broad-based development from below. And to the extent that Cuba does get richer, the impact of U.S. sanctions will continue to decline. For the U.S. to regain any measure of leverage, the time to act is now.