I met Fidel Castro in Havana in 1995 as part of a human rights delegation and, after six gruelling hours of negotiation, gained his commitment to release six political prisoners. We were hardly the first or last visitors to do so. Jesse Jackson convinced Mr Castro to release 26 political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson secured the release of three in 1996 and Jimmy Carter’s 2002 visit prompted the release of one. The most successful, of course, was Pope John Paul II, who obtained the release of more than 70 jailed dissidents in 1998.

While the prisoners’ release was worth celebrating, none of these visits altered the underlying reality of Castro’s Cuba. There invariably would be more political prisoners to release when the next visitor showed up. Repression continued and many observers concluded that real improvements would come only after Mr Castro left the scene.

But Mr Castro’s final days are near and there are good reasons to fear that change will not come even after he has gone. One is the exaggerated expectations – fanned by Mr Castro’s most militant foes – of how Cubans on the island will react to his death, pouring triumphantly into the streets as people did in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Observers may instead be surprised when they face the more likely scenario: the streets remain empty, or fill with Castro supporters mourning his death. The international community may be reluctant to press for changes that Cuba’s population itself does not seem to be seeking.

This reluctance would be understandable but misguided. Most Cubans do want change. If they do not call for it after Mr Castro’s death, it will be largely for the same reason they did not during his lifetime: the country’s repressive machinery, which ruined countless lives, remains intact today.

If the international community misreads this silence, it will miss a historic opportunity. Immediately after Mr Castro’s death, the Cuban government will be more vulnerable to pressure for change than ever before. Raúl Castro, who has already taken over the reigns of power, may wield the same old instruments of repression. But he will not enjoy his brother’s revolutionary stature, which at times has been as vital as the repression for perpetuating the regime. This window of opportunity is unlikely to last. Raul Castro may never match his brother’s unique combination of personal charisma and political cunning; yet, he could easily acquire the other trait that Fidel exploited so effectively: the heroic image of the Latin American David confronting the US Goliath.

Whether Raúl Castro can claim the “David” role will depend largely on Washington. He will be virtually guaranteed the part if the Bush administration stays the 40-year course of unilateral embargo and unconditional ultimatum. It is hard to think of a policy that has a longer track record of failure. Cuba is no more open now than when the embargo was first imposed four decades ago. If anything, the policy consolidated Mr Castro’s hold by giving his government an excuse for its problems and a pretext for its abuses. Moreover, because the policy was imposed in such heavy-handed fashion, it enabled Mr Castro to garner sympathy abroad, neutralising international pressure rather than increasing it. While other governments may have been concerned about political repression in Cuba, they were unwilling to be seen as siding with a bully.

To its credit, the Bush administration responded to news of Mr Castro’s decline in August with surprising restraint, with President George W. Bush saying Cuba’s citizens should determine their future. But if Washington hopes for influence in Cuba, it must do much more. First, it will need to lift the embargo. Nothing short of this will work, not even the “calibrated response” espoused by the Clinton administration, in which the US would ease the embargo in response to Cuban reforms. Why would the Cuban government make concessions when the embargo helps keep it in power?

Yet, it would be naïve to think the embargo’s end would prompt the Cuban government to change its ways. Instead, a more measured and multilateral approach is needed, in which other governments in the region take the lead in pressing Cuba to respect political freedoms. Finding allies willing to assume this role will not be easy. But it may be the only hope for real change. By making the effort, the US could begin to reverse the dynamic that helped keep Mr Castro in power. Only when the US stops acting like Goliath will Cuba stop looking like David.

The writer is the Americas director of Human Rights Watch

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