"Working together for a free Cuba"




"The U.S. government will need to be prepared well in advance".

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. should have assistance in Cuba within weeks of President Fidel Castro's death to support a transitional government and help move the country toward democracy, a government report recommends.

The report was prepared by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, an interagency group co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American.

President Bush created the commission in 2003 to "help hasten and ease Cuba's democratic transition," according to its Web site.

The report, obtained by CNN in advance of its scheduled release next week, is billed as a strategic plan to promote democracy on the island once Castro is no longer in power. (Watch how the U.S. has designs on Cuba after Castro -- 1:17)

"The U.S. government will need to be prepared well in advance to help in the event assistance is requested by the Cuban transition government," the report says.

Castro has been in power since 1959 and has shown no signs of stepping down despite being 80 and despite rumors of his deteriorating health. Castro's brother, Raul, is believed to be his successor.

The United States and Cuba, which have no formal diplomatic relations, are constantly at odds, but tensions between the two countries have increased in the past year.

Earlier this month, the Cuban government cut off electricity to the U.S. interests section in Havana, the capital. The State Department said requests to have the power restored went unanswered for several days.

Cuba was accused by the State Department of engaging in "bully tactics" to thwart pro-democracy efforts in the country.

The Bush administration already has tightened the four-decades-old U.S. embargo of the island, increased Radio Marti news broadcasts into Cuba, curtailed visits home by Cuban-Americans and limited the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives.

In September, Bush appointed Caleb McCarry, a former Republican staff member of the House International Relations Committee, as Cuba transition coordinator -- or point man on regime change in Cuba. The position was among the commission's earlier recommendations.

While noting that Castro has plans for a successor, the commission says the message that the U.S. would assist a democratic Cuba could bolster democratic forces in the country and create an environment where democracy and economic reforms could thrive.

Lending a hand with health care and clean water would be good starts, the report says.

The report also calls on the the U.S. "to put in place preparations that will ensure that the U.S. will be in a position to provide technical assistance in the first two weeks after a determination that a Cuban transition is under way."

That would include legal experts to help with elections. Training judges and police would be essential, according to the report.

The six months immediately following Castro's death or ouster would be key to determining U.S. success in the mission, the report says.

"This critical 180-day period could mean the difference between a successful transition period and the stumbles and missteps that have slowed other states in their transitions toward democracy," the report says.

It calls for an $80 million "democratic fund" for two years to strengthen civil society, boost opposition to Castro's regime and facilitate the free flow of information. It recommends at least $20 million a year for democracy programs "until the dictatorship ceases to exist."

The report recommends offering a substantial aid package to the transitional government if it met certain criteria under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.

Those criteria would include freeing all political prisoners, legalizing all political activity, conducting democratic elections and establishing a free press.

The State Department had no comment on the report because it hasn't been officially released, but officials did say the report could change.

Cuba expert Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, said normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could take time.

"Despite extensive planning for a full transition, it seems more likely that after Fidel Castro's departure, we will see a socialist successor government that will decide whether, where, and how fast to reform the policies it inherits," Peters wrote.

"Washington will then have to decide how to use U.S. influence to promote positive change," said Peters, a former State Department appointee during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

He noted that U.S. influence "will be limited by decades of policies that have blocked communication between our peoples and governments, and by the all-or-nothing posture that the Helms-Burton law imposes on U.S. diplomacy."

Source: CNN
June 30, 2006