A New Opportunity to Make Cuba More Open

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Cubans did not enjoy genuine democratic freedoms when they voted in Sunday's legislative elections, for which 614 candidates -- all members of the ruling Communist Party -- contested 614 seats.

But the election, which kicks off a process in which new executive authorities will be selected, is further evidence that an increasingly stable Cuba is successfully preparing for life without its charismatic but frail leader, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro. And it underlines the need for the world to engage with Cuba, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the longstanding U.S. embargo.

Ironically, Castro ran -- and was certain to be elected -- as a deputy on Sunday. But his recent statements indicate that he will play a far less active role in daily government. He seems likely to give up permanently many of the responsibilities he handed over temporarily to his brother Raul following stomach surgery 18 months ago.

Castro's physical decline increases the likelihood that the country could become more pragmatic in economic policy. As head of the army, Raul Castro has always been seen as a more practical figure than his older brother. Economic stability, engendered by Venezuelan and Chinese backing and higher commodity prices, has encouraged the acting president to promote more open discussion of the shortages that make life for Cubans so difficult.

There is, therefore, a chance that the new legislators, who will elect a 31-member council of state and new vice president next month, will be more innovative than their predecessors. Cuba, for example, could allow small farmers greater independence along the lines of experiments last seen in the 1990s.

But U.S. policy continues to mistakenly assume that Castro's decline will usher in a period of social and political upheaval. Its trade embargo is counterproductive, serving as a focus for anti-U.S. sentiment and reinforcing hard-line opponents of change.

By contrast, engagement could embolden moderate reformers, reduce Cuban dependence on the radical government of Venezuela and may even help foster greater political openness. South America's most influential country, Brazil, has shown the way forward. Last week, its moderate leftwing president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, offered $1 billion in loans, and its state oil company, Petrobras, is negotiating investment contracts.

It is too late for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to change course, but a new and more effective policy based on Cuban realities ought to be high on the agenda of the next U.S. president.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.