Cuba After Castro
NOV 27, 2016 7:57 AM EST
History will absolve me, said Fidel Castro in 1953, shortly before he
took the world stage. He was wrong. In power for nearly a half-century,
he brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war,
exported revolution and repression, and turned his island into a
penurious police state. His death could open the door to a brighter
future for Cuba – especially if its neighbors, beginning with the U.S.,
pursue the right policies.
As ruthless as he was charismatic, Castro managed to hold off the
superpower 90 miles from Cuba's coast almost through force of will,
becoming an icon for hemispheric anti-Americanism in the process. His
cunning cultivation of patrons -- first the Soviet Union, and then
Venezuela -- enabled the country to endure the U.S. embargo and his own
economic policies, which turned the Caribbean's most advanced economy
into a basket case.
Any reckoning of his legacy must grant the Cuban revolution's
achievements: high rates of literacy and educational enrollment, low
levels of crime and infant mortality, relatively low levels of poverty
and inequality, and universal health care. But the price was outrageous.
Castro squandered the country's enormous economic potential and was an
exemplary human-rights abuser. For decades he made his island a prison,
its people denied freedom of speech, with dissidents forbidden to travel
and subject to arbitrary arrest.
The question now is how best to transcend that legacy. As the standard
bearer for "los historicos" -- the revolutionary old guard -- Castro was
a bulwark of revolutionary fervor blocking political and economic
reforms. After President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba in March, he
sneered that "we do not need the empire to give us anything." U.S.-Cuba
relations thawed despite him. Castro's passing could pave the way for
speedier progress, both in relations with the U.S. and in setting the
For sure, his brother Raul, Cuba's president since 2008, is no liberal
in waiting. The reforms of recent years have been timid. Obama's visit
prompted party leaders to circle the wagons, and the elder Castro's
death could have the same short-run effect. If at the same time the U.S.
were to reverse course on improving relations, as president-elect Donald
Trump has threatened, Castro's death could become a setback rather than
an opportunity. Cuba's aging revolutionaries might be re-energized -- at
some cost to the U.S. and at enormous cost to Cuba.
One small step to guard against that outcome would be for President
Obama to attend Castro's funeral. By returning to Havana, Obama can
express the U.S. commitment to move forward in its relations with the
Cuban people, pay respect to their achievements and suffering under
Castro, and affirm that their prospects, with luck, might be about to