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US: Castro Health Crisis Signals Start of Political Change in Cuba

The U.S. State Department's senior official for Latin America said Friday President Fidel Castro's health crisis signals the beginning of political change in Cuba. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon says he does not believe an effort to perpetuate communist rule on the island can succeed.

Senior officials here say they have no hard information about Fidel Castro's condition or ready explanation as to why his brother Raul, who has temporarily assumed power, has not appeared in public since the president's illness was announced.

But Assistant Secretary Shannon says the absence of the Castro brothers from public sight suggests that Fidel Castro's illness is serious, and that a transition effort is under way.

In the most detailed comments to date by a senior U.S. official about the events in Cuba, Assistant Secretary Shannon said it is likely that a behind-the-scenes effort has begun in Havana to perpetuate communist rule, but that the circumstances of the Castro dictatorship make that difficult.

"Authoritarian regimes are like helicopters," he said. "They're 'single fail-point' mechanisms. When a rotor comes off a helicopter, it crashes. When a supreme leader disappears from an authoritarian regime, the authoritarian regime flounders. It doesn't have the direction it requires. And I think that's what we're seeing at this moment."

Shannon dismissed published suggestions that Raul Castro might be reform-minded and capable of being a transitional leader for Cuba, citing his past record as a ruthless facilitator of his brother's policies.

He also said that, given the regime's harsh treatment of dissenters, especially in recent years, there is no visible opposition leader to turn to, though the country's dissident movement has proven durable.

"There is not an over-arching figure, such as a Lech Walesa, in Cuba at this point," he noted. "But there are a series of very courageous, very articulate individuals who have worked hard to build democratic civil society and dissident movements. And what we believe the international community should be working towards is creating an environment that allows these groups to begin to communicate with each other, and then communicate more broadly with the Cuban people."

Shannon said the Bush administration's Cuba policy, backed by $129 million in recent funding from Congress, is aimed at opening so-called political space in Cuba by providing a free flow of information, via stepped-up U.S. broadcasting and uncensored Internet access.

He said the key to the future stability of Cuba is democracy, which is something he said the United States and international community can encourage, but not impose.

Under questioning, Shannon said he hopes that Venezuela, which under populist President Hugo Chavez has provided massive aid to the Castro government, will join the rest of the hemisphere in supporting a transition to democracy.

He said the Cuba-Venezuela relationship now is largely one between the two leaders, and that it remains to be seen what will happen to it when a non-Castro Cuba emerges.