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After Castro, help Cuba to a better way

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The Bush administration is under scrutiny for its role Â- or nonrole Â- in the on-again, off-again coup in Venezuela.

Much more intriguing, however, is the role it may play in the transition of another Latin country of significance to the US. That country is Cuba, and the transition could well take place in the Bush administration's tenure.

After fainting during a speech in June last year, 75-year-old Fidel Castro indicated his successor in power would be his 70-year-old brother, Raul, who is Cuba's first vice president, minister of defense, and second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party.

Raul has carefully cultivated military leaders, who would play a formidable role in a succession regime. He has also replaced virtually all of the Communist Party's 14 provincial secretaries with new and younger incumbents he favors from the Union of Young Communists.

How this would change the Cuba that has been an irritant to the US for decades is not clear. On the one hand, Raul has argued for economic reforms, badly needed if Cuba is to claw its way out of its present economic distress. But whether these would be accompanied by the political reforms needed for Cubans to gain some measure of freedom is uncertain.

In recent months, Fidel Castro has mounted something of a charm offensive, intended to mellow Washington's hostility to his regime and the ideology it practices. The aim is to persuade the Bush administration to lift the US trade embargo, in existence for four decades. It is a key Castro objective, designed to help his ailing economy. Tourism to Cuba is down since Sept. 11, and so are remittances from Cuban exiles in Miami, many of whom work in Miami hotels and tourism-related industries, and who have lost their jobs in the US economic slowdown. All this, coupled with a cutback in Russian involvement in Cuba, has put a crimp in Cuba's foreign currency holdings.

The upheaval in oil-rich Venezuela must also be giving Fidel Castro some concern. Before the recent coup, President Hugo Chavez, a pro-Castro enthusiast, had been diverting some 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba at very favorable terms, to meet about two-thirds of Cuba's needs. With the overthrow of Mr. Chavez's leftist regime, that supply could have been in jeopardy.

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