Leading article: Beware the advice of exiles

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It was Fidel Castro's 80th birthday yesterday. There was a cake for him from his staunch ally Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, who had a present too - a dagger and a cup once carried by the 19th-century Latin-American independence fighter Simon Bolivar. But there were no obvious congratulations from the White House.

The thoughts of the Bush administration have been turning towards Cuba, however. President Castro has been temporarily out-of-office during an intestinal operation. Washington is rather hoping that the absence of the Communist leader may be slightly more permanent. Both President Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, have been pushing for political change on the island in the wake of Mr Castro's illness.

Certainly, Cuba needs change. It may have health and education systems that are the envy of most of the developing world, but, despite an admirable revival in agricultural self-sufficiency over the past 15 years, its economy is stagnant - it depends for survival on the oil supplied by Mr Chavez in return for the 14,000 doctors Mr Castro sends him. It has a poor human rights record and only one party, Mr Castro's, is constitutionally allowed to stand in its elections.

What is unclear, however, is whether Cuba needs change along the lines advocated by Mr Bush and his colleagues, who have drawn up an $80m plan to assist Cuba's "transition to democracy". This seems aimed to appeal more to the community of Cuban émigrés in Florida as to the Cubans who have remained under the Castro regime. In Miami's Little Havana, anti-Castro exiles have been out on the streets honking horns and waving flags at the prospect of "regime change".

Mr Bush needs to guard against making the same mistake with the Cuban exiles as he did in Iraq, where his post-invasion strategy was based on the analysis of émigrés like Ahmed Chalabi, whose view of the place turned out to be not just self-serving and manipulative but fundamentally wrong. The views of Little Havana are highly unlikely to represent the wishes of the majority in Cuba, where Mr Castro - whose first post-illness pictures were published yesterday in the Communist Party paper Granma - still seems a popular figure.

Ms Rice went on the radio at the weekend to say that Washington would "stand with" the people of Cuba as they secured their rights to free speech, freedom of worship and multiparty elections. The lesson of history is that change will be more real and sustainable if the United States allows the people of Cuba to secure those rights - when Fidel Castro finally departs - without the interference of an outside state, however well-intentioned.

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