Spring is the season of high drama for Cuba's government. Every April, the United Nations Human Rights Commission meets in Geneva and rebukes Fidel Castro's dictatorship for restricting civil liberties and human rights.
Journalists around the world anxiously wait for Castro to pronounce his detractors "bootlickers" and "lackeys" of Uncle Sam. And like clockwork, he did again this year. But this time, the old magic seemed to be gone. His insults rebounded in countries that now seem less willing to overlook his despotism and admire his defiance of the United States.
Take Mexico and Peru. In his annual May Day speech, Fidel blasted both nations for supporting this year's resolution. He charged that Mexico's reputation had "turned to ashes" and branded Peru's president an incompetent.
Instead of taking it in stride, Mexico responded to the calumny by withdrawing its ambassador from Havana and booting out Cuba's envoy and another top diplomat in Mexico City. Peru also recalled its ambassador to Havana and downgraded its liaison to a commercial attaché.
Both nations had little to lose. Few of their citizens admire Castro anymore, and trade with the island is negligible. And despite Castro's legendary charisma and the fresh starch in his fatigues, there is a palpable evolution away from his way of thinking -- both in the world and on his captive island.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the expansion of trade and gradual adoption of democracy in the western hemisphere has left Castro's socialist dream frozen in time. While there remain some true believers, such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Bolivian leftist movement leaders Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales, the prevailing trend is the adoption of democratic institutions and cooperation on trade and security.
European and Latin American governments have begun withdrawing export credits from Cuba as a result of bills unpaid and are promoting contacts with Cubans other than Castro. Recently, foreign diplomats gathered at the house of imprisoned Cuban poet Raúl Rivero to call for the release of 75 Cuban activists that Castro jailed last year in a crackdown on dissent. Last month, UNESCO honored Rivero with its World Press Freedom award.
Inside Cuba, dissident groups like Oswaldo Payá's Christian Liberation Movement and Marta Beatriz Roque's Assembly to Promote Civil Society are gaining strength as Cuban democrats come out of hiding. In 2002, Payá's collaborators collected more than 11,000 signatures on a petition seeking a referendum on Cuban socialism. Despite Castro's crackdown on dissent last year, they got 14,000 more.
Lately, Payá and colleagues began circulating a new proposal for a national dialogue leading to a political transition. It is Cuba's first homegrown agenda for a peaceful departure from dictatorship.
An unassuming but trenchant book called Context for a Cuban Transition by Ernesto Betancourt, an exiled Castro official and later director of the U.S.-funded Radio Martí, explains what is going on. Not only are Cubans losing fear of their maximum leader, he says, but they are realizing that a transition -- not a succession among the regime's communist nomenklatura -- is the only scenario that provides something for most stakeholders in Cuban society: the military, common citizens, dissidents and Cuban exiles.
If Betancourt is correct, and a combination of internal and external pressure bears fruit, this Caribbean nation could become a very different society in short order.
To be sure, most Cubans are hungry and stressed, unlikely to rise up against Castro and his repressive Communist Party security apparatus. But there are measures that the United States can take now to foster a more favorable environment for a transition when he can no longer rule.
Some of these are contained in the report the State Department Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba just sent to the White House. It seeks a $30 million increase in funding to U.S. and foreign non-governmental organizations to support Cuban human rights and democracy activists, resources to enhance Radio and TV Martí's signal penetration on the island, and authority to focus the use of travel and remittances to benefit ordinary Cubans, not the regime.
Beyond that, the Bush administration needs to target Cuban students and doctors sent abroad with a public diplomacy outreach, improve cooperation with foreign governments on limiting financial credit to the regime, corral Castro's symbiotic relationship with other governments such as Venezuela, and vastly improve moribund U.S. intelligence collection against the regime -- to know who and what will try to torpedo potential democratic advances.
Foreign leaders are less likely to indulge Castro these days while Cuban democrats are gaining strength. The United States should support these developments in a cooperative, sensible way.
Stephen Johnson is a senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire