Castro exit sets stage for progress

A Times Editorial
Published February 20, 2008

Fidel Castro has been in declining health for so long that Tuesday's announcement that he would step down as Cuba's president barely registered on the streets of Havana or Miami. This is, after all, an 81-year-old dictator so sick he has avoided the public eye for 19 months. No one expects the formal end of Castro's nearly 50 years of rule to suddenly bring about the kind of political changes that could open the way for improved relations between Cuba and the United States. However, Castro's decision sets the stage for progress and offers opportunities ahead that neither country should squander.

The Bush administration reacted to Castro's announcement by saying it would stick to its hard-line policy until Cuba embraces democracy. Maybe President Bush's successor will be more pragmatic about how to move toward that goal, starting with easing the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

The first sign of what direction Cuba will take after Castro could come Sunday, when the country's legislature will appoint a new Council of State, including a new president. The assumption is that the dictator's younger brother, 76-year-old Raul, could assume the presidency. There's also speculation that Cuba could turn to a group of younger leaders. Regardless of who assumes power, there is no reason to think much will change as long as Fidel Castro is alive.

The ailing Castro has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he ceded power temporarily to Raul before undergoing intestinal surgery. In a letter published Tuesday in the Communist Party daily Granma, Castro said he would not accept another term as president when the National Assembly meets Sunday. "My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath," he wrote. "It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."

As the caretaker president, Raul Castro has spoken admiringly of China's economy and hinted that Cuba needed to make fundamental changes to improve pay and living standards for Cuba's workers. But the outline of any economic reforms are unclear. The most optimistic assumption now is that Cuba might move toward a hybrid economic model, where both political authoritarianism and a market economy could coexist.

There are indications that the next generation of Cuban leaders might be more pragmatic, dangling the prospect of trade as a way to improve relations between Washington and Havana. However, there is little chance of normalizing relations between the two countries until Cuba's repressive government begins to move toward political reforms, including free and fair elections. Castro's departure is more of a symbolic transition than a political one, but it does show that the clock is ticking. The United States should be ready to seize the moment when it comes.