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The Cuban Armada

Will post-Fidel migration fears trump democracy promotion?

12:00 AM, Aug 2, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IN THE EVENT that Fidel Castro's death unleashes another flotilla of refugee boats, that policy might face its most severe challenge. Would America have the means, and the will, to intercept and repatriate tens of thousands of Cuban migrants? What if various exile groups set sail for Cuba or tried to aid their brethren heading the other way? The 1980 Mariel boatlift dumped an estimated 125,000 Cubans on U.S. soil. The 1994 balsero frenzy saw nearly 40,000 Cuban migrants interdicted. The Coast Guard and other federal agencies have been anxiously organizing contingency plans for "the day after Fidel."

When confronted with the prospect of a migration fiasco, the United States may decide that ensuring a stable autocratic transition is more important than encouraging a potentially messy democratic one. The stability impulse would only gain strength if the island descended into bloody rioting. It was anti-Castro rioting along Havana's famous Malecón that helped spur the 1994 exodus.

The crucial variable remains Cuba's domestic situation. Fidel has always wielded the refugee card as a tool to wring concessions from the United States and satisfy his needs. With Raúl Castro, Fidel's 76-year-old brother and longtime defense minister, now serving as "interim" president, the regime has quietly forged a collective leadership. Indeed, Cuba's post-Fidel transition has already begun, even if the bearded dictator (who turns 81 on August 13th) is still alive. But the economy remains moribund, with food shortages and low wages endemic.

Any serious revamping of the Cuban system presupposes Fidel's death. Should there be large-scale political unrest, Latell maintains that "a Tiananmen Square scenario" could splinter the military, which is "the most powerful, competent, and influential institution in Cuba," not to mention the richest. "Even if the survival of the revolution were at stake," Latell writes, "many troop commanders would probably be unwilling to fire indiscriminately on protesting civilians." In which case, the regime might lose control and begin to hemorrhage refugees.

GEORGE W. BUSH and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "are wholeheartedly committed to a democratic transition in Cuba," says Mauricio Claver-Carone, a prominent Cuban-American lobbyist who favors the embargo. But when push comes to shove, will the permanent bureaucracy prize stability over change? The specter of a migration bonanza still concentrates the mind in Washington.

"It is not hard to imagine that minimizing instability and a migration crisis will continue to be the top USG priority for Cuba post-Fidel," argues Orr, the former USAID Cuba coordinator. "The same motivations that have kept the past U.S. administrations from providing tangible financial support for democratic opposition groups will be there." Such is the hope, anyway, of Cuba's ruling elite.

Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.