WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Feb 2008

Castro Resigns as Cuban Head of State

Cuba is seeing today a transition in government that U.S. policy was designed to prevent.  U.S. policy toward Cuba has been built on the idea that the long-standing trade embargo on the island would weaken Fidel Castro’s government and hasten the day when he would be overthrown by the Cuban people. 

Instead, Castro has resigned as Cuban president after nearly 50 years in power, and an orderly transition seems to be underway. With its embargo and continued efforts to isolate Cuba internationally, the United States remains irrelevant to that process and carries little or no influence at this historic moment.  

“For all its failings, the Cuban government has never confronted broad internal opposition or been in danger of being overthrown. The notion that the embargo would weaken the government and bring a popular uprising was always chimerical,” said Geoff Thale, Program Director at WOLA. “Now that Castro has announced his resignation, and Cuba’s National Assembly is poised to elect his successor, the futility of the U.S. approach becomes even clearer.”   

Over the past 20 months, a gradual process of leadership transition has take place in Cuba. Today’s announcement underscores the stability of Cuba’s political process. This period has also offered hints as to the kinds of changes that Cuba might see under Raúl Castro, Minister of the Economy Carlos Lage, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón and others within the Cuban government. Most notably, the government has encouraged rather than discouraged public debate on the island. Cuban authorities have reached out to students and workers in the agricultural sector for their suggestions and opinions.

That said, few expect Raúl Castro or others in the Cuban leadership to make dramatic political or economic shifts in the country.  But a process of change is underway in Cuba, with a political succession, the advent of new leaders, and stirrings of debate about the country’s problems. 

The nearly 50-year-old embargo has made the United States completely irrelevant to this process.

“We have no contact with Cuban political leadership.  Our diplomats do not engage in discussions with political figures, economists, academics, or others who might be involved in the next generation of the Cuban government.  We exclude many Cuban scholars and thinkers from traveling to the United States, and we deny most U.S. citizens their right to travel to Cuba,” said Elsa Falkenburger, Cuba Associate at WOLA.

From a human rights perspective, WOLA believes Cuba should free the remaining political prisoners and expand freedom of expression and association. Unfortunately the U.S. Government is currently incapable of encouraging these kinds of changes in Cuba due to its isolationist policies.

Meanwhile, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Canada and China are all involved in Cuba, advancing their own economic interests and talking with the Cuban government about the future.  Spain, for example, has recently completed the second round of a dialogue about human rights; while no one expects breakthroughs, discussion with Cuba on human rights issues is clearly important and positive. 

Fidel Castro’s resignation underlines the need for the United States to take a new approach, one that engages with Cuba — both its government and its people — instead of maintaining a failed policy that dooms us to irrelevance. While the current administration is likely to maintain the old approach, the 2008 presidential candidates should adopt a more forward-looking position.

New leadership in Cuba presents the next U.S. administration with a unique opportunity.  Engaging with Cuba through expanded bilateral contacts, an end to the ban on travel and progress toward normalized relations would be the right step from the point of view of U.S.U.S. values.  It would also be an important symbolic step, demonstrating the next administration’s intent to overhaul the Bush Administration’s largely unpopular foreign policy agenda. This move would help rebuild the United States’ standing in the international community.   


Geoff Thale, gthale@wola.org, (202) 797 2171

Elsa Falkenburger, elsa@wola.org, (202) 797 2171