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US: Cuban Government Becoming More Rigid

The U.S. State Department's top official for Latin America said Wednesday Cuba's government has become more hard-line since the ailing Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother Raul in late July. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon says U.S. officials see no reformer in the current Cuban political lineup. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Raul Castro made an overture for dialogue with the United States in a speech December 2 at a rally marking his brother's 80th birthday.

But the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America says if anything, the communist government in Havana has become more rigid and orthodox since the transfer of power, and the Raul Castro gesture is not being viewed here as a real opportunity for change.

In a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon gave a bleak assessment of prospects for early change in U.S.-Cuban relations.

He said there is no doubt that responsibility for running day-to-day affairs in Cuba has been passed to Raul Castro, the longtime defense minister, but that there is no hint of change in the government's approach:

"With Fidel still alive, the regime has actually become harder, more orthodox," he said. "And it's not in a position to signal in any meaningful way, what direction it will take post-Fidel. So we don't feel that we've lost an important moment, because quite frankly we don't see any significant possibility of change of any kind until Fidel is gone."

Shannon said the United States has no independent information on the condition of Fidel Castro, who underwent intestinal surgery in July, but he termed it significant that the Cuban leader was not able to make an appearance at the birthday events early this month.

He said if the past is any indicator, Raul Castro, known as a brutal enforcer of communist rule, will not be an agent of change in Cuba and none of the other senior figures in the hierarchy have shown any signs of being reformers either.

Shannon said after Fidel Castro passes from the scene, Cuban leaders will have a strategic choice to make:

"Once he goes, the successor government is going to have to chart out some kind of path into the future," he added. "The question is what kind of path does it chart out? Does it chart out a path that only deepens the repression and deepens the misery? Or does it attempt to chart out a path that is one of engagement with the world and an opening, both political and economic. But there are no clear signals about what that path is going to be."

Shannon said the Bush administration is comfortable with the terms of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act from Congress, which forbids U.S. recognition of any transitional Cuban government that includes Raul Castro.