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John Hughes: Cuban reform must be encouraged

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With Fidel Castro currently, and perhaps permanently, not controlling events in Cuba, how should the United States react?

If there is one thing on which many Cuba-watchers seem to agree, it is that we will not see a seamless succession to Castro's brother. With or without Raul Castro, a transition will take place, the shape of which will involve changes not yet clear. As one Cuban-American with good sources within Cuba puts it: "When you break an egg, you can make fried egg or scrambled egg, but you cannot re-create the egg."

What the United States would like to see is a dramatic shift away from dictatorial rule, with Cuba emerging as a democracy with a robust free-market economy. Though Iraq and Lebanon dominate the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda, President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House spokesman Tony Snow have all taken time to stress this in public statements. Concern about Cuba's future has been heightened in Washington since left-leaning Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez succeeded Russia as Cuba's patron and savior, finding common political cause with Fidel Castro and propping up Cuba's ailing economy with subsidized Venezuelan oil.

How can the United States encourage reform and democracy in Cuba? First, by encouraging a free information flow to a country whose citizens have long been subjected by its government to censorship and propaganda. I understand that TV-Marti and Radio Marti, the U.S. government-sponsored broadcasting entities that beam news to Cuba much as Radio Free Europe did to the captive nations of eastern Europe during the Cold War, will soon be operating on an extended basis from EC-130E/J Commando Solo aircraft maintained by the U.S. Air Force. This airborne delivery will hopefully overcome Cuban jamming, which has prevented many Cubans from watching and listening to these broadcast reports. By this and other means, the United States can support the dissidents in Cuba and underline the atrocious human-rights records of the Castro regime.

The U.S. government has for some time been working on plans to not only encourage the freedom movement in Cuba today but to support a democratic transition tomorrow. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba made initial recommendations in 2004 and, under the chairmanship of Rice, updated them last month. Though some of the report's findings are classified, others in the public domain include recommendations for support to Cuba in the aftermath of transition. If needed and requested, the United States would provide humanitarian aid. It would help Cubans get to free and fair elections and would help with the reorganization of their economy. State Department planners are wisely counting on the inclusion of the international community's involvement in hastening elections and accelerating Cuba's reintegration into the world's economy. This would lend credibility to the process. It should not be seen as a narrow, American go-it-alone effort.

The commission says Cubans living abroad could provide "much-needed resources in the form of information, research and know-how, as well as remittances, loans and investment capital." The commission tiptoes around the tricky question of restoring confiscated property to Cubans in exile. This, it says, must be settled by a new elected government "enjoying widespread legitimacy with the Cuban people."

One imponderable in the process of transition would be the attitude of the Cuban army. Cubans close to the officer corps say it is politically stratified by rank. The generals are revolutionary comrades of Castro dedicated to retaining their authority and perquisites. The colonels and lieutenant colonels, usually trained by the Soviets, see themselves as military professionals, possibly dutiful to civilian direction. The captains and lieutenants resent the perks of their superiors, are suspicious of communism and politics and are more aware of the people's discontent.

Military officers at all levels are said to be concerned over limited resources and obsolete equipment. From his sickbed, Castro is purported to have declared his confidence that the Cuban revolution he created will live on. While he wielded repressive power for 47 years, his charisma fueled the revolution at home and dazzled fellow dictators around the world. Now comes the time of reckoning.

John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com