WASHINGTON — Cuba's foreign policy, for decades dominated by Fidel Castro and his efforts to challenge U.S. interests around the world, will be marked by greater pragmatism no matter who succeeds him, analysts and diplomats say.
Cuba's diplomatic maneuvering already has increased in recent months as the island reached out to countries like Spain, Canada, Chile and Mexico, in addition to U.S. rivals China and Russia.
Raul Castro, who has ruled Cuba since his brother took sick in 2006 and is expected to be ratified as the country's new head of state by the National Assembly this weekend, already has taken a less confrontational, less ideological tone in his international relations, experts and diplomats say.
He's expected to cool down his brother's torrid relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as he courts nations that could bring the island additional business benefits and influence with the United States, the experts added. This will become especially important as he attempts to produce tangible improvements for the Cuban people.
"Raul in the past few months has diversified Cuba's foreign relations,'' says Jaime Suchlicki, head of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "He's moved closer to Iran, he's moved closer to the Russians and the Chinese. The Angolan President was in Cuba in December, and now we have this move toward Brazil.''
Last month, as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was visiting Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba and Brazil signed 10 agreements, including an aid package of up to $1 billion in credits and more infrastructure investments.
According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, Raul told Lula that he trusted Brazil more as a partner than Venezuela.
Brazilian diplomats told journalists earlier this year that Lula was eager to tighten relations with Havana, to expand Brazilian business opportunities and counter Chavez influence in Cuba.
Observers say Cuba under Raul has been downplaying its traditional role as a world icon of leftwing ideology.
"Raul and Chavez have agreed on a division of labor,'' says Damian Fernandez, director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. Raul handles internal Cuban affairs while Chavez has become the international face of Latin America leftists, he says. "This relationship of convenience fits both those leaders well.''
Suchlicki says Raul also wants to avoid becoming too dependent on Chavez.
"Raul is concerned about the reliability of Chavez,'' he said, "and he doesn't want to get caught in the same way they got caught in 1990.''
Cuba went into an economic tailspin in 1990 after it lost billions of dollars in Soviet-era subsidies. Venezuela is now estimated to provide a net annual subsidy of $1 billion annually, mainly through discounted oil.
Cuba is of course expected to continue to seek condemnations of U.S. sanctions on the island, analysts said. But the country is looking beyond that, even reaching out to nations that are ideologically close to Washington.
Earlier this month, Cuba agreed to start repaying the $400 million it owes Mexico, paving the way for relations to improve with a country historically close to Cuba — it was the only country not to adopt Organization of American States sanctions imposed in the 1960s — but whose relations chilled under conservative Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderon, also is a conservative but has avoided provoking Havana. After Fidel Castro announced he was retiring, Mexico issued a gently worded statement calling the moment "of great importance'' but refraining from recommending democratic reforms, as other countries did.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa is to visit Cuba March 13-14 and a visit by Calderon could follow later, diplomats familiar with the talks say.
Last weekend, Cuba released four jailed dissidents to Spain in what some analysts believe is a gesture toward the Socialist government's policy of engaging Havana rather than criticizing it.
And during a recent visit to Chile, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage invited President Michelle Bachelet to visit the island, Chilean officials say. Chile embraces the kind of pro-free market policies that Washington espouses and Fidel Castro abhors.
Marifeli Perez Stable, an FIU professor and vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, says many foreign leaders might welcome the change in Cuba's leadership.
"Someone who is not bigger than life will be much easier to talk to'' than Fidel, she said, adding that there also might be changes in Cuba's relationship with Venezuela.
"Chavez and Raul are not soul mates, by all accounts,'' she said.
Several Latin American diplomats, who declined to be identified for this story, believe the Cubans are a moderating influence on Chavez, who faces accusations of backing leftwing movements around Latin America.
One diplomat pointed out that Cuba didn't join Chavez's call last month to recognize Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas, accused of massive abuses, as a legitimate fighting force and not a terrorist organization.
"What I don't see is the Cuban government repeating the harsh rhetoric by Chavez,'' says William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert with American University in Washington.
Ultimately, the experts say, Raul will continue to push for better relations with the United States — he has made several calls for talks , though Raul already has said he doesn't expect this to happen under President Bush.
Suchlicki believes Raul is unlikely to make any serious concessions to prompt a change in U.S. policy, which ties the lifting of sanctions to democratic reforms.
"He may make token suggestions, release political prisoners, allow the Church to have a couple of more schools, I mean things that are reversible,'' he said. "But key irreversible concessions, opening the political process, allowing political parties, allowing freedom of the press, that isn't happening in the next two or three years.''
(Dorschner reported from Miami, Bachelet from Washington. McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Jack Chang contributed from Rio de Janeiro.)