Helms-Burton law has a lot of requirements for normalizing U.S. relations with Havana

If Cuban ruler Raúl Castro keeps his promise to surrender power in 2018, will that allow Washington to begin lifting the U.S. embargo under the terms of the Helms Burton Act? Not likely.

Helms-Burton does indeed require both Fidel and Raul Castro to be out of power before the U.S. government can certify that a transition regime is in place in Cuba and resume full diplomatic relations broken since the early 1960s.

Raúl Castro announced Sunday that he will retire when his current five-year term as head of the ruling Council of State expires on Feb. 24 2018, when he will be 86 years old. Brother Fidel, now 86, surrendered power unofficially after emergency surgery in 2006 and officially in 2008.

But Helms-Burton, approved by the U.S. Congress in 1996 to turn into law what had previously been executive-branch decrees and regulations on Cuba sanctions, has plenty of other requirements for certifying a transition regime.

“The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby. “And hopefully they can happen well before 2018.”

The key Helms Burton requirements are: Legalize all political activity; release all political prisoners and international inspections of Cuban prisons; abolish the Ministry of Interior, its State Security branch and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

Also required is a commitment to holding free, fair and internationally supervised elections within 18 months after the transition government assumes power, with the participation of multiple political power and free access to the mass media.

Cuba also must stop jamming Radio/TV Martí and make “demonstrable progress” in establishing an independent judiciary, respect human rights, allow independent trade unions and political associations and allow the distribution of foreign aide to Cubans.

Authorities also must show progress in effectively guaranteeing free speech and freedom of the press, “including granting permits to privately owned media and telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba,” according to the requirements.

Cuba must also permit the reinstatement of Cuban citizenship to Cuban-born persons returning to the island, guarantee the right to private property and take steps to return to U.S. citizens any properties seized by the Cuban Government since 1959 or provide compensation.

Finally, Helms Burton requires Cuba to return to the United States all of the wanted U.S. fugitives living on the island and permit “the deployment throughout Cuba of independent and unfettered international human rights monitors.

What’s more, some Cubans believe that even if Raúl Castro does retire he might be succeeded by another Castro — his son Alejandro, currently his top national security adviser and manager of a key anti-corruption campaign, or even his daughter, sexologist Mariela Castro, elected for the first time to the national legislature earlier this month.

And some opponents of sanctions on Cuba argue that Helms-Burton contains a kind of legislative trapdoor that in effect allows a U.S. presidents to lift or change sanctions as they see fit, though the argument has never been tested.

Robert Pastor, an American University professor who was the Carter administration’s point man on Cuba, said he hoped the Raul announcements would have some impact on the U.S. Congress in terms of Cuba policy, which he described as “of no use to U.S. interests.” But he added that he doubted it would.

“I don't see the end of the system as anything immediate in Cuba -- even if the Castros disappear,'' said Juan Clark, a professor emeritus at Miami-Dade College.

But the future of Cuba is fluid, he added, and there could be an unanticipated move by the Cuban military, Cuba could discover commercially viable oil deposits, or a successor to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could cut off his subsidies to the island.

“Who knows? We may see things in Cuba we didn't consider possible,” Clark said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this article.

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