Time has accomplished what a U.S.-supported invasion, a crushing economic embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union and any number of external and internal catastrophes could not: the removal of Fidel Castro from direct control over the people of Cuba. Suffering from failing health, Castro has finally ceded power after five decades. The apparent political demise of El Jefe offers a unique opportunity for the people of Cuba and for their closest neighbor to the north to pull out of a half-century spiral of enmity and antagonism.
Fidel is not the only Castro in Cuba, nor the only hard-liner; his brother Raúl has been the de facto ruler of the country for two years now. February elections elevated Raúl to the office of the presidency and other hard-liners to positions of greater power, muting expectations of rapid change. But Raúl has spoken publicly about the need for structural changes in Cuba, and is believed to favor more widespread economic reforms. His advanced age also suggests his rule will not be a long one, and a new generation of younger Cuban leaders may soon take on more responsibility.
Cuba is blessed with prodigious natural resources and a well-educated population, but is bedeviled by the same forces (including a brain drain of skilled professionals to other Western nations) that have brought low so many of its Caribbean neighbors. Should Cuba’s internal security apparatus break down in the aftermath of any transfer of power from the Castros, Cuba and the United States could face an enormous wave of attempted immigration to the United States, straining American resources while further damaging Cuba’s prospects for economic prosperity. Much as South Korea has done in preparation for the eventual fall of Pyongyang, so too must American politicians and diplomats work for a “soft landing” for Cuba in the coming years, helping its people make the transition from a socialist state to a market economy with a minimum of economic and political disruption.
A useful first step will be a measured easing of the American economic embargo, which has played just as much a role in the economic privation of Cuba as the most misbegotten of Castro’s policies. It is also a relic of a bygone age, begun as a bulwark against socialist revolution but now little more than an expression of an irrational grudge. Worse, it has given Castro a raison d’être. Recent years have seen Canadian and European investment in the Cuban economy growing, while the vast resources of the Cuban-American community are not directed toward its own roots. Should the sitting president lift the embargo, there is no question that many Cuban-Americans would be outraged and express their dissatisfaction demonstrably. President Bush is in a unique position to make such a potentially unpopular choice, since his status as a lame duck gives him some freedom from traditional political pressures.
While it is important to recognize the legitimate grievances of Cuban exiles in Florida and elsewhere, the United States will need to make clear to any future Cuban government that the United States will not support efforts toward repatriation of land or economic assets and is willing to bury its historical grudges, much as we have done in recent years with the government of Vietnam.
The United States can also recognize the legitimate accomplishments of the Castro regime, including its achievements in education, health care and racial harmony. The Cuban people may seek capitalism’s prosperity, but not at the expense of socialism’s gains. Any careful transition to new economic structures should not repeat the mistakes the United States made in Russia and Eastern Europe after the cold war, endorsing an economic free-for-all but failing to support local social institutions. Changes in Cuba provide a chance for the United States to restore the international reputation so damaged by the war in Iraq. With Cuba, America can show that its seeming arrogance is matched by appropriate munificence.
John F. Kennedy, whose support for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion convinced Castro that the United States could not be trusted, nevertheless once spoke to the newly free nations of the world in words of particular pertinence now, promising that “one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.” Fidel Castro has long accused the United States of seeking to return Cuba to a colonial outpost of its imperialist ambitions. The actions we take toward Cuba in the next few years can be our chance to assuage similar reservations among the Cuban people.