It is an announcement made monumental by its rarity and by the long history of antagonism between Cuba and the United States, but in practical terms it is a switch that will change very little.
In technical terms, having Raúl in office doesn't really change anything at all; he has held provisional power in Cuba ever since his brother's emergency surgery in 2006. He has served in prominent governmental capacities for decades, and in both his years of state service and his exercise of actual presidential power, Raúl has given little indication that he will alter Cuba's policies in any significant way.
Although Cuba's new leader will likely not deviate from the status quo, it is undeniable that Fidel Castro's death marks the end of an era. Does this transfer of power offer the United States an opportunity to change its aggressive stance towards Cuba?
After all, the United States has maintained a consistently hostile position ever since Fidel Castro's ascent to power in 1959. It is easy to see this antagonism as an obsolete relic of the Cold War, a needless and useless by-product of a conflict that has long since ended.
However, this perception is misguided. The Castro government remains one of the most repressive governmental systems in the world, a one-party state dominated by the Cuban Communist Party at all levels.
Political dissent is not tolerated in any form, opposition parties are nonexistent and Cuban citizens do not possess basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Far from being outdated, the United States' refusal to appease Castro's government demonstrates a responsible effort to combat a ruthless authoritarian state.
That said, there is a distinction between foreign policy goals and the specific means by which these goals are pursued. While the United States' commitment to fostering democracy in Cuba is admirable, the government's anti-Cuban policies are highly ineffective.
Probably the best and most well known example is the U.S. trade embargo. As a means of forcing change in government, the embargo is simply no longer relevant, and yet it has persisted for over 40 years with little change.
In general, Cuba's status as a longstanding enemy of the United States means that reversing antagonistic policies can look like weakness, rendering even profoundly wasteful and ineffective initiatives very difficult to amend or eliminate.
If current policy is unsuccessful, what changes could allow the United States to effectively foster democracy in Cuba? While the question is difficult to answer, it is clear that actual change in Cuba can never come from an external application of force, but rather must stem from a genuine commitment to democracy within the island nation's populace. Policies that decrease contact with the values and advantages of the democratic system are thus hardly conducive to long-term change.
Lifting the embargo would increase the flow of people, products, and ideas between the two nations, better exposing Cubans to American values. The introduction of new initiatives that focus on increasing knowledge and information rather than imposing economic pressures from the outside would serve the same purpose.
The exchange of force for subtlety, of tangible initiatives for intangible battles fought within the abstract realm of ideology, seems to be a frustrating avoidance of concrete influence, and a very slim hope on which to pin the overthrow of a Communist system that has been deeply entrenched for half a century. After decades of aggressive policy, it sounds very much like giving up.
However, is it so ridiculous to believe that Cubans themselves, armed with the knowledge of the benefits of a modern democratic system of government, will not ultimately choose to fight for change? In fact, Raúl's presidency may provide the opportunity for such a fight to succeed. In addition to being ruthlessly authoritarian and extremely resilient, Fidel Castro was also forcefully charismatic, and while Raúl may prove to possess the first two traits, he lacks the crucial third.
Deprived of its powerful unifying figurehead, the Cuban government may no longer be able to suppress all opposition to Communist Party policy. This could be the crucial difference between Fidel and Raúl that allows democracy to grow, despite all efforts to maintain authoritarian control. As president, Raúl Castro will not change the Cuban system of government. Rather, he will do everything he can to ensure it will not change. But if an informed and inspired Cuban populace begins to fight for democratic system of government, change may nevertheless become inevitable.