EVEN IF FIDEL CASTRO recovers fully from surgery, it is clear that the "sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding" announced Monday to a stunned people weary of his half a century of misrule marks the start of Cuba's transition to the post-Fidel era. Beyond the immediate questions about the true state of el comandante's health, the intriguing issues are whether the communist regime can outlive its creator and whether the outside world has a say in the matter.
Castro has clearly been haunted by this question, as evidenced by his brutal crackdown in recent years on any form of political dissent or economic liberalization. Cuba is a basket case, partly getting by on Venezuelan handouts. There is no reason to believe that Castro's acolytes will be able to keep the Stalinist theme park intact for very long after his death. But there's no way of knowing how long and how messy the transition will be.
Fidel's brother, Raul, has been handed the reins of power temporarily. Although long regarded as the regime's bad cop, overseeing the military and security apparatus, Raul is a proponent of some of the economic reforms that Fidel rejected. He or any other successor would probably create more openings for private enterprise while continuing to stifle political opposition. Will the police state comply? Will the opposition turn violent? No one knows. The White House has long planned for this moment, but the U.S. approach is at once too little and too much. It is not ambitious enough to convince Cubans that the U.S. will help improve their living standards, yet it is political enough to come across as more Yankee meddling.
We have long considered the economic embargo counterproductive. It has provided Castro a convenient scapegoat for his failures and diluted the potential for American culture to undermine the Communist Party's control. But it's unrealistic to expect Washington to rip up decades-old policy overnight in the event Raul takes over, because that might confer on him an undeserved legitimacy.
Still, Castro's demise should trigger an important change in the U.S. approach. The administration should lift the travel ban (which is, regardless of what one thinks of Cuba, an unjustifiable restraint on the freedom of U.S. citizens). Restrictions on remittances back to the island also should be lifted, as should any limitations on agricultural trade.
This is essential to avert one of the greatest potential dangers -- the possibility of a massive refugee flight to U.S. shores. To motivate Cubans to stay, the U.S. will need to show them that their lives can quickly get better. A second wave of trade liberalization and economic assistance should be dangled offshore, waiting to reward any steps toward more representative government.
The Cuban diaspora is a source of great opportunity (for capital and energy) and danger (of meddling and triggering a backlash). The administration should augment Miami's potency by mobilizing a group of friendly Latin American nations to assist Cuba's exciting transition toward democracy. Any initiative that comes across as regional -- and not just American -- will be more palatable to Cubans and more likely to deliver long-delayed freedom.