HAVANA – What will Cuba be like when Fidel Castro is gone? Washington and Cuba have — no surprise — startlingly different versions of a post-Castro Cuba, and many dissidents on the island complain they will be caught in the middle.
In Washington's scenario, presented this week by a presidential commission, a democratic Cuba will endorse multiparty elections and free markets and become a new ally to be rebuilt with American assistance after nearly five decades of communism.
But Castro, who apparently enjoys good health and turns 80 on Aug. 13, has been fortifying the ruling Communist Party to ensure the status quo long after his death. He plans to hand over power to his 75-year-old brother Raul, the first vice president of Cuba's Council of State.
The key aim of the 93-page report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is to halt that succession, using diplomacy to enlist Cuban citizens and other countries to demand a new government after Fidel dies.
It recommends that the United States spend $80 million over two years to encourage that change, saying Cubans could appeal to the United States for food, water and other aid. It envisions U.S. technicians rebuilding schools, highways, bridges, financial specialists designing a new tax system and the United States helping Cuba join the International Monetary Fund.
"The greatest guarantor of genuine stability in Cuba is the rapid restoration of sovereignty to the Cuban people through free and fair, multiparty elections," says the report that was released July 10.
Other experts say the commission is being unrealistic.
"We need a reality check here," said Wayne Smith, America's top diplomat to Havana from 1979 to 1982. "Anyone who knows Cuba knows the Cuban people aren't going to rise up against a successor regime."
Dissidents in Cuba say they appreciate the gesture, but fear it will backfire and lead to more arrests. In 2003, 75 dissidents were arrested and accused of being "mercenaries" receiving U.S. aid — a charge the activists denied.
Opposition member Manuel Cuesta Morua called the U.S. offer a "poisonous embrace."
"Those are 80 million arguments for the Cuban government to make it seem all Cuban dissidents are financed by the United States," he said.
The dissident community has not fully recovered from the 2003 arrests, and no Cuban opposition leader has emerged with widespread support.
Cuba also lacks the powerful nongovernment institutions that existed in communist-era Poland, where the Solidarity movement, organized around a strong Roman Catholic church and labor unions, managed to topple the Communist leadership.
The U.S. report has been well-received in Miami, where U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Republican, said it shows "the strong commitment of President Bush to help the Cuban people free themselves from the shackles of their brutal oppressor."
But Smith calls the U.S. report "pure pie-in-the-sky."
"The reality will end up being somewhere between those two visions, and probably closer to the Cuban succession plan — with the addition of popular pressure for economic reforms," said Smith, who heads the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, a foreign policy institute in Washington.
Long a taboo topic, Cuba's planned succession has been discussed more openly in recent months with Raul Castro, the longtime defense minister, appearing frequently in state media to insist the party will continue its dominant role.
If Raul Castro does succeed his brother, the United States will likely be sidelined while other countries interact with Cuba's new leadership, said Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, a think tank outside Washington.
That's because the United States in 1996 tightened its Cuba sanctions and prohibited aid to Cuba until multiparty elections are planned, political prisoners are released, and both Castro brothers are out of power.
Peters said the report only hardens Washington's position on Cuba.
"The report leaves no doubt that the administration will not support in Cuba the kind of change it applauds in China — economic liberalization without significant political change," Peters wrote this week.
Cuban parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon said he believes the report's classified section contains plans to attack the island or assassinate its leaders.
"We have the right to expect the worst," said Alarcon, referring to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and earlier U.S. assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.