Coral Gables, Florida

NOBODY KNOWS what will happen when Fidel Castro dies. But Caleb McCarry, the State Department's designated "Cuba transition coordinator," says the United States is currently "stepping up" efforts to encourage civil society on the island and "will continue to do so," adding that federal and local officials have held joint exercises in Florida to prepare for the day El Comandante finally expires. "This is an opportunity for the Cuban people that can't be lost."

McCarry, speaking on July 10th at the University of Miami, implied that Washington would not shrink from democracy promotion for fear of a refugee crisis--a point President Bush recently emphasized. "One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away," Bush said at the Naval War College in late June. "Then, the question is, 'What will be the approach of the U.S. government?'" There will be "an interesting debate," he predicted. "Some will say, 'All that matters is stability,' which in my judgment would just simply reinforce the followers of the current regime. I think we ought to be pressing hard for democracy."

Not likely, says Peter Orr, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as Cuba coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President Clinton. Last summer, shortly after Castro went to the hospital for intestinal surgery, Orr emailed me a sobering analysis of America's immediate post-Fidel priorities, regardless of which party held power. (He abbreviated "U.S. government" as "USG.")

"The biggest concern of the USG when it comes to Cuba is massive, uncontrolled migration," he wrote. "That threat is perceived to be greatest if there is a regime break which results in lack of control of the island and the populace. Consequently, despite rhetoric embracing the goal of a democratic Cuba and rejection of regime continuation after Fidel passes from the scene, the USG has in reality favored some sort of regime continuity to avoid a breakdown in authority."

Orr added that he "considered this to be the most likely scenario well before 9/11. Now, with foreign policy dominated with the war on terror and the struggle with radical Islam, and with uncontrolled immigration being an even bigger political issue than in the past, I think it is even less likely that the USG will take a principled stance in favor of a real democratic transition in Cuba after Fidel is gone."

In particular, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security may resist an aggressive push for regime change. Their chief aim, as Orr indicated, will be to curb a possible tsunami of refugees. "Any widespread breakdown of law and order on the island," writes Cuba expert and former CIA officer Brian Latell, would "inevitably" trigger "the fourth massive seaborne migration to Florida." (The first three were in 1965, 1980, and 1994.) This is "a nightmare scenario for both Cuba and the United States."

Bush's own record on Cuban refugees is mixed. He has upheld the Clinton administration's "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which stipulates that Cuban migrants who make it to shore can generally stay in the United States and earn legal status, while those captured at sea are either repatriated to Cuba or sent to a third country. (Until the mid-1990s, the United States rarely shipped Cuban refugees back to Castro.) This has led to harrowing interdictions by the Coast Guard and Border Patrol. Lately, the dangers for Cubans have gotten worse.

"Amid a heated national debate over illegal immigration, and growing concerns about terrorism and border security," the Wall Street Journal reports, "federal agents are adopting ever-harsher interdiction methods at sea, colliding--sometimes tragically--with the vagaries of U.S.-Cuba policy. While the law offers permanent escape to Cubans who make it here, current terrorism policies compel agents to stop migrants almost any way they can. High-speed boat chases at speeds over 45 miles an hour in rough seas are commonplace. Many chases now end with federal agents firing live ammunition--a technique developed for drug traffickers--at boats filled with migrants."

It is hard to square such tactics with Bush's professed commitment to those fleeing Cuban tyranny. The president speaks loftily of welcoming Cubans; but in practice, U.S. treatment of migrants crossing the Florida Straits can be brutal. Even when they don't face violence, the "wet foot, dry foot" policy threatens to scupper their hopes.

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.

Next Page