Following US-Cuban affairs after Fidel Castro's incapacitation is kind of like watching a tennis match. On the left side of the court, sporting olive drab green shorts and matching headband, Raul Castro. On the right side of the court, wearing denim shorts and a cowboy hat, George W. Bush.
First, the serve. When Raul took over as Interim President there was much speculation from policy wonks and the press regarding the fate of US-Cuba relations. The ball is now in play and Bush is the first to return it over the net. Sensibly, US government officials quickly tried to extinguish such speculation by stating, in effect, that US policy opposes dictatorship in Cuba regardless if it is wielded by Fidel or Raul.
Cuba answers. In a major speech on July 26, Raul concedes that some of the Cuban government's past policies have failed and it appears that he is offering a small olive branch to the US. The ball, now back in the US side of the net, is answered with a strong back hand by President Bush. On Wednesday, in a major Cuban policy speech given from the State Department, President Bush maintains the hard line by indicating the embargo will remain in place and calling Cuba a "tropical gulag." Nice.
But wait.... What's this? Raul runs to the net and volleys. Just hours after Bush's speech, Cuba broadcasts half of it on national TV! And Granma, the Cuban government's newspaper, publishes edited transcripts that included some of Bush's best zingers (here is a copy of the speech with the text not published by Granma crossed out). Unprecedented.
The US now stumbles. According to the Miami Herald, Department of State officials declined to comment on the Cuban broadcast and release of transcripts of Bush's speech. To be fair, what could they say? Surely they can't encourage such hopeful behavior by the Cuban regime. To do so would be a slippery slope for this administration. At worst it may lead to the beginning of a thaw in relations between the two governments, at best it gives the appearance that the Bush hard line is softening. Either result will only open Bush to attacks from his base and serve to alienate the Cuba policy hawks that he so openly aligned himself with during the speech.
Gut check time. Just as the ball appears to be heading towards it's second bounce on Bush's court, the Administration reaches back and slams it towards the opponent. On Monday, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a jailed Cuban dissident, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. Match point. Take your olive branch and shove it.
The next set in this match will start in 2009, when the US is under new management.
(Editorial Note: Here's hoping that Dr. Biscet's medal brings some luster back to the award. The medal was disgraced when, in 2004, it was presented to Paul Bremmer, Gen. Tommy Franks, and George Tenet--three of the four people most responsible for the debacle in Iraq).