How dramatic a change Fidel Castro's retirement as president of Cuba represents for the island itself, for Latin America and for the world, could depend less on how the Cubans now behave than on decisions originating in the White House.
Since the end of the Cold War Castro and the Cuban leadership have maintained their historic socialist commitments but with a pragmatic adaptation to the new global realities forced upon them by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has meant a selective opening of the Cuban economy to market forces and the rejection of revolutionary adventurism in favour of a foreign policy based on appropriate state-to-state relations.
While the authoritarian structures have not been dismantled - for which Castro bears a share of responsibility - the absence of political reform must be viewed in the context of a hostile and destabilising United States intent on reigning the island back into its sphere of influence.
Left to its own devices, post-Castro Cuba would probably evolve into a social democracy - one of the few genuine social democracies in Latin America - intent on preserving its national independence and little more. It would, in other words, probably become for the first time in 50 years a non-issue in regional and global affairs. But the question is whether Cuba will be left to its own devices. Every US president since Eisenhower has sought to "win back" Cuba. George Bush is no exception.
In his first comprehensive policy statement on Cuba, in May 2001, Bush set down the general administration line, declaring: "The policy of our government is not merely to isolate Castro, but to actively support those working to bring about democratic change in Cuba."
In statements and policy guidelines since, the US has made clear that "democratic change" means nothing less than the total dismantling of the revolutionary state and what remains of its command (or welfare) economy. It is this, despite the rhetoric about electoral democracy, that is the fundamental objective of US policy.
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Bush, of course, has other - perhaps even stronger - reasons these days to want to meddle in a Cuba now that Castro is no longer its leader. With post-invasion Iraq a disaster zone, Afghanistan little better, and US Middle East policy in tatters, a victory for Bush in Havana could overshadow his foreign policy failures elsewhere.
That is not to say that the US would invade or, as in 1961, support an armed intervention by anti-Castro Cubans. But it could choose both to influence what happens now on the island by backing individuals and groups in Cuba (and, worse, among ambitious right-wingers in Miami) who support Washington's ultimate objectives irrespective of how representative these people are of Cuban popular opinion.
The danger in this approach is that it could generate conflict on the island that in turn could spill over into another refugee exodus on at least the scale of the boatlift of 125,000 Cubans from the port of Mariel in 1980.
The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once related how, at the very start of the ground-breaking visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Castro reacted to the news that the three top US television networks were pulling out their anchors because of breaking news about a White House intern by the name of Monica Lewinsky. "Those damned Yanquis always f--- up everything," Castro declared. With Castro no longer a rallying figure, the odds are short that "those damned Yanquis" will again confirm the accuracy of the old revolutionary's assessment.
Chris McGillion and Morris Morley co-wrote Unfinished Business: America And Cuba After The Cold War, 1989-2001 (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2008 The Sydney Morning Herald