Fidel Castro's quiet exit from the Cuban political stage may pave the way for opponents of the trade embargo against Cuba to chip away at economic sanctions against Cuba. However, lifting it outright will prove difficult.
Castro's retirement as the president of Cuba's Council of State doesn't meet any of the lengthy and precise conditions outlined in the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation for improving economic relations with Cuba.
''The legislation is in place and will be in place with this administration,'' said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. ``This administration will not change until Cuba changes.''
The law, passed in an election year and in the aftermath of Cuba's 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that ended in four deaths, formalized U.S. sanctions and detailed strict benchmarks Cuba must meet before the sanctions, including the trade embargo, can be relaxed or lifted. A key rationale for the law was also to make Cuba settle U.S. claims for property confiscated decades ago.
The conditions for ending the embargo range from the big -- proscribing the presence of either Fidel or Raúl Castro in Cuban government -- to demanding that Havana support small business in exchange for easing restrictions on remittances.
The U.S. president can only lift the embargo by certifying to Congress that Cuba is in a transition to democracy -- which entails another long list of rules.
Helms-Burton essentially shifted control of the embargo from the president to Congress.
The trade embargo was implemented piecemeal over the years. Washington banned all Cuban imports in February 1962.
The sanctions were elevated into law 30 years later in the Torricelli Act, also known as the Cuban Democracy Act. This legislation banned even food and medicine shipments from the United States, outlawed U.S. subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba and prevented ships that docked in Cuba from entering U.S. ports for 180 days.
The Helms-Burton law imposed new restrictions and listed new goals, including the exchange of news bureaus and requiring the president to make an annual report to Congress on other countries trading with or investing in Cuba. It also made it harder for some Cubans to get visas to visit the United States.
Pedro A. Freyre, an Akerman Senterfitt lawyer in Miami, said there is little likelihood that the embargo will be gone quickly because he saw no signs Cuba would comply with the stipulations for democratic elections.
However, Freyre, who frequently speaks about the Helms-Burton law, said there are many ways for the embargo to be tweaked, just as it was in 2000 when the ban on shipping food and medicine to Cuba ended.
''If you are going to see a legislative attack on the Torricelli [Act] and Helms-Burton, I don't think it's going to be a frontal assault,'' Freyre said. ``It's going to be guerrilla warfare.''
Ways of easing the embargo could include allowing U.S. financing of agriculture sales to Cuba (Cuba has to pay upfront for shipments), more family visits to the island and even lifting a ban on U.S. tourists traveling to Cuba.
A new administration in the White House could return to ''constructive engagement,'' with overtures to Havana if Cuba's government takes steps such as releasing dissidents or legalizing some opposition movements, Freyre said.
But Freyre said that any cooperation would require careful orchestration to build confidence between the two adversaries.
Some say that a first step for lessening the sanctions might be to avoid dealing with the Helms-Burton law completely.
''It is easier to do away with the Torricelli Act than Helms-Burton,'' said Antonio R. Zamora, of counsel in the Miami office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.
''Torricelli is much more specific,'' said Zamora, adding that lifting the sanctions on ships could allow cruise ships to dock in Cuba. ``With the new Congress, I think there are going to be some changes.''
Freyre also said that times have changed for the two countries.
''For the first time in 50 years, Castro is not in power in Cuba and this is an election year in the United States,'' Freyre said. ``The planets have aligned.''