Fidel Castro’s recent announcement that he would step down as president of Cuba has brought renewed attention to the long-standing animosity between the U.S. and Cuban governments, with some Americans arguing that now is the time to work for better ties with our neighbor to the south. Senator Barack Obama, for instance, has stated, “We now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba, after over half a century.” This statement is true, but Obama is right to hedge when he says “potentially.”

In one sense, the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Ral Castro is symbolic. Ral Castro has led Cuba ever since July 2006, when Fidel Castro entrusted him with the day-to-day duties of managing Cuba’s communist government. It is true that Fidel Castro was still the nominal president of Cuba, but it is hard to imagine that he oversaw the operation of the Cuban government while undergoing multiple surgeries and battling a life-threatening illness. With Fidel Castro debilitated, Ral Castro deserves much of the credit – or perhaps blame would be a more appropriate word – for the actions of the Cuban government during the last year and a half.

Unlike his older brother, Ral Castro has at least played lip service to the need for reform and the restoration of basic rights like freedom of speech. Ral Castro has indicated he will allow economic reform and, over the last 18 months, some 80 political prisoners have been released. These are steps in the right direction, but, overall, Cuba’s government has not come close to discontinuing its repeated abuses of basic rights.

The Cuban government has continued to arrest political activists, censor the media and enforce a one-party rule. Revealingly, it freed and then proceeded to exile two journalists, a labor activist and a human rights advocate earlier this month. If the Cuban government is to move toward genuine reform under Ral Castro, it will be the sort that is viewed as nonthreatening to the authority of the island’s communist regime. Political reformers are bound to be disappointed with Ral Castro.

The question facing the United States and its presidential candidates (one of whom will end up dealing with Ral Castro) is how the United States should react to the departure of the ailing Fidel Castro and the arrival of his brother. This is not an academic question. In Florida alone, there are over half a million Cuban Americans who have family members and relations living in Cuba under an oppressive government.

These Americans know that the United States’s policies toward Cuba could have a major impact on the lives of the Cuban people.

If elected president, Senator Obama has expressed a willingness to meet with Ral Castro “without preconditions” and to ease some of the restrictions that isolate Cuba from the United States. Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton are less optimistic about this approach; as a prerequisite to negotiating directly with Cuba’s new president, both senators want to see Ral Castro make significant political reforms. These are serious policy differences. Fortunately, the next president of the United States will have almost a year before inauguration to see Ral Castro in action. It should be more clear by that time whether a meeting with the Cuban president – in reversal of a decades-old policy – would truly improve the lot of the Cuban people. Caution is in order.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that far-reaching political reform will emerge from within the Cuban government. The Cuban government is autocratic and undemocratic by nature. Dissidents are jailed and journalists are censored because the government fears the will of the Cuban people. Real political reform will not occur as long as the first priority of Cuba’s leaders is to preserve the current government and their own power structure. What many news agencies have styled as the end of a nearly 50-year epoch could turn out to be a continuation of Castro, albeit with a different first name.

Jaramillo is a member of the class of 2011.

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