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Cuba: Timely for US Policy to change?

Julia E. Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow and director for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book is "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century."

Writing in The Nation [America's pre-eminent magazine] she raises the question which Washington ought to now consider with the the spectre of Fidel Castro passing from the scene:

"The issue is not how to change US policy toward Cuba. The issue is how to change the Cuban regime," Havana-born US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said not once, not twice, but throughout a recent speech titled "Cuba After Fidel." The secretary's disciplined effort to stay "on message" was likely a response to the emerging pressure on Washington to abandon its policy of perpetual hostility and assume a new approach toward Havana--given new political realities in both capitals.

In Washington and Havana, two striking events may have laid the groundwork for real political drama this year: After almost fifty years of supreme rule, a gravely ill Fidel Castro transferred "provisional" power to his brother Raul last July, and after twelve years of being out of power, the Democratic Party resumed control of Congress last November.

In Cuba, eight months of stability and business-as-usual have passed since the announcement of Castro's illness, reported to be diverticulitis. Castro's health has improved, and he is slowly re-entering public life, but he appears not to have resumed his previous around-the-clock work schedule, nor his notorious micromanagement of major and minor affairs of state. Yet the regime has not collapsed--as so many officials, analysts and exiles wishfully believed it would--exposing the utter failure of the US policy of regime change. In Washington, Democrats who want a more enlightened posture toward Havana have assumed control of key Congressional committees. Precisely because it is now an open secret that Washington's half-century don't talk/don't trade/don't travel policy toward Cuba has gone nowhere, the new US Congress has the opportunity to lay the foundation for an overhaul of America's Cuba policy that a centrist of either party could pursue once in the White House in 2009."

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