Our Bogeyman in Havana Is Dead
What Fidel Castro’s death means for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.
At long last, Fidel Castro has sailed on to the great commune in the sky. The millions of cries of “Vaya con Dios” in Havana have been answered by exuberant dancing in the streets on Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where people are more likely saying “Vaya con El Diablo” instead. The real question is how does Fidel’s passing affect Cuba, the United States, and the region? What are the points of leverage that may emerge as a result of his long-anticipated death?
We should first pause and consider the legacy of El Comandante, which isn’t pretty. Despite a deluge of touching tributes from around the globe (including an especially smarmy one from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who should know better), the balance sheet of history will score Fidel poorly. While there will be requisite acknowledgment of Fidel’s work in improving child mortality, creating a better educational system, training many (mediocre) doctors, and reducing inequality (by making the population more equally poor), the decisive judgments will focus on a harsh dictatorship, iron control of the people by the brutal security forces, and worst of all, an essentially non-functioning economy that was only sustained by decades of handouts from the Soviet Union.
When Fidel took over, many countries south of the United States were governed by repressive, undemocratic regimes of one form or another, chiefly among them military juntas. By the time of his death, only Cuba remained a true dictatorship, although Venezuela is not far behind today. Fidel managed to freeze Cuba in place for over a half-century, using the United States and its failed embargo as an excuse for all the problems his regime could not correct. When I was commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, charged with all security activity and military operations south of the United States, I used to keep a picture on my office wall of a classic 1957 Cherolet that prowled the streets of Havana to remind me that Cuba was quite literally stuck in the past. Our embargo only empowered Fidel to keep that lack of progress in place, and the Obama administration’s moves to open the country are the right ones.
This brings us to the path ahead given the passing of Fidel. We should begin by acknowledging that in all probability, Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger and less-talented brother will be able to maintain tight control over the nation. Raúl, who is himself no youngster at 85, has the security forces — both domestic surveillance and armed forces — under his direct control. With roughly 70 percent of the economy run by the military, that means Raúl has both the guns and the butter when it comes to controlling the populace. Not surprisingly, there is very little in the way of human rights progress, although some limited commerce is developing and internet access is inexorably making gains. But overall, we should curb our enthusiasm that Fidel’s death will suddenly unleash a brave new world in Cuba.
Having said that, there are several potential shifts in the political context that Fidel’s death might enable.
First, in Cuba itself, Fidel’s death removes any final constraint imposed by presence of the psychologically important if physically diminished leader. Raúl will have a more open field in which to explore economic, political, and cultural changes should he desire to do so. By the time of his death, Fidel was almost a ring wraith dressed in an old blue track suit, yet he still exerted a certain force over domestic politics. Whether Raúl wants to open up the economy is of course an open question, but at least the option now exists.
Second, from the perspective of the United States, we should step back and consider our objectives. We certainly want to bring better human rights and a true democratic process to Cuba. Over time, this will reduce the flow of migrants to the United States. Additionally, the island has 11 million relatively well-educated people with enormous untapped potential. Tourism, agriculture, mining, offshore hydrocarbons, and eventually a market for American products are all attractive for the United States. And the cigars aren’t bad either.
The best way we can achieve our objectives would be to gradually, and in a transactional way, continue to engage with Cuba. In the end, lifting the embargo will affect Cuba in ways that achieve U.S. objectives. Look at the cases of Vietnam and the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe: Both have moved from being low-productivity economies with opposing political stances to becoming friends and allies of the United States with increasingly robust trading regimes. That could be the case with Cuba over time.
Third, the passing of Fidel will continue the geopolitical shift against communism and deep socialism in the region that crested about five years ago, when the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, buoyed by high oil prices, was able to cobble together a group of left-leaning regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Cuba — all under the symbolic mantle of Fidel, a man Chávez viewed as a father figure. With oil prices now below $50 a barrel, Chávez and Fidel dead, and Venezuela collapsing due to economic mismanagement, that movement is increasingly discredited.
Thus, it’s increasingly important that the United States continue to maintain good relations with close friends and partners like Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Peru. It’s also why it’s imperative to build new relationships with nations emerging from hard-left governments such as Argentina while reaffirming the strength of bilateral relations with Brazil as it goes through much domestic travail. There are ways to develop shared hemispheric interests in dealing with narcotics, natural disasters, medical diplomacy, humanitarian operations, and illegal migration. And working to these ends through the Organization of American States will help maintain a sense that the Americas are a shared home for us all.
While Fidel’s death may not have immediate practical effect, the longer-term symbolism may have an impact in providing new openings in the Americas. For too long, we used Fidel as our bogeyman in Havana, generally to our own detriment in the region. Now that he is gone, we should forge a new approach for the vibrant but complicated world to the south.
Photo credit: RAFAEL PEREZ/AFP/Getty Images