Bloomberg | By Janine Zacharia
President George W. Bush’s top advisers examined yesterday how to handle the post-Fidel Castro era, preparing for a possible wave of Cuban refugees once the ailing dictator dies, according to a U.S. official familiar with the White House meeting.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley chaired the meeting, which was attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, chief political adviser Karl Rove, White House counsel Harriet Miers and officials from throughout the government, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The hour-and-a-half discussion focused on how to deal with any Cuban exodus, the U.S. official said. American diplomats are being vetted for possible dispatch to Miami, through which U.S. officials fear Cubans will try to enter the U.S.
The meeting, which was not disclosed, underscored the Bush administration’s concern that instability in Cuba could follow Castro’s death. Florida, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Cuba, has taken in thousands of Cubans who have fled by boat during the past four decades. About 900,000 Cubans have immigrated to the U.S. since 1960, according to U.S. government data.
Reviewing `the Plan’
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, described yesterday’s meeting as a ``routine review of policy.’‘
``Nothing new was decided or settled upon, rather it was just a `let’s go over the plan one more time’ kind of meeting,’’ Casey wrote in an e-mail.
National Security Council spokeswoman Kate Starr declined to comment on what she said was an internal White House meeting.
A second, lower-level interagency gathering today is to look at what role each government agency would play after Castro dies, the U.S. official said.
Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based group that analyzes policy in the Americas, said he doesn’t believe a Cuban refugee crisis is likely. Still, ``when you’re dealing with the Caribbean, it’s always good to have an eye on the migration issue,’’ he added.
In 1980, about 125,000 undocumented Cubans made the journey to the U.S. aboard hundreds of small boats after Castro said anyone who wanted to leave could depart through the Cuban port of Mariel. The exodus, which included criminals Castro freed from prisons, overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Castro, who has not been seen in public since July, could die within a week to six months, the U.S. official said. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the Washington Post on Dec. 14 that everything indicates Castro has ``months, not years’’ to live.
Cuba’s parliament is holding its first meeting today without the 80-year-old Castro since his July 31 intestinal surgery. Castro handed control of the government to his 75-year- old brother Raul that day.
Raul Castro told a conference of university students yesterday that those involved in the communist revolution in Cuba ``are completing the fulfillment of our duty, and we must continue gradually opening the way for the new generation,’’ according to the Web site of the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
While the U.S. has had an economic embargo on Cuba since 1962, and restricts American travel there, the U.S. has pumped millions of dollars into radio broadcasts and funding for anti- Castro opposition groups, primarily based in Miami, to facilitate a democratic transition in the island nation.
Last year, the State Department appointed a ``Cuba transition coordinator,’’ Caleb McCarry, to direct U.S. actions aimed at promoting democracy.
``What we’re focused on right now is talking about Cuba’s future in democratic terms and making it clear that for us the road to stability in Cuba runs through a successful transition to democracy,’’ Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon told reporters in Washington on Dec. 13, when asked about U.S. consultations with other nations in the region on the post-Castro era.
``The ability of Cuba to be reintegrated into the inter- American community requires a successful transition to democracy,’’ he added.
Erikson said the U.S. had not effectively seized the opportunity created by Castro’s illness. ``This is the moment the U.S. government has been waiting for, for almost 50 years, and the response has been, in my view, extraordinarily cautious,’’ he said.
The U.S. has planned ``for the least likely scenario of a rapid democratic transition in Cuba, and they’ve done very little for the most likely scenario, which appears to be a smooth communist succession led by Raul Castro,’’ Erikson said. ``In that sense, the U.S. is just not poised to be effective in Cuba in the short term.’’