It's annoying to have to make a point regarding the obvious, but I'll start this post by doing so anyway, in part to ward off the simple-minded attacks from the simple-minded. And, of course, because it needs to be said any way.
Fidel Castro was a brutal dictator. You could write that statement on the world's biggest blackboard, thousands and thousands of times, a la Bart Simpson, and it wouldn't even begin to capture the brutality of life under the Maximum Leader. And his death neither undoes nor forgives any of that; it does not, in all probability, even begin to bring closure to the friends and families of his many victims. One can only hope and pray that whatever government that follows Castro will, at the very least, refrain from perpetuating the violence and death that characterized much of his time in power.
And make no mistake: there will be changes. Castro's government was always more of a personality cult than an ideological crusade. He alternated between using Communism and capitalism as means of keeping the support of the Cuban people and staying in power for decades. The personality is now gone; his brother, Raoul, does not have even the smallest fraction of what it takes to replicate that personality's impact. And, thanks to the increase in commerce and tourism between Cuba and other Western countries (including the United States, Cubans have already begun to expect, and will continue to expect, better lives for themselves than they got out of the central-planning economics that remains the Soviet Union's main legacy to Cuba.
But what about the United States' legacy to Cuba, especially as Donald Trump prepares to take over from Barack Obama?
Without support from a Republican Congress, Obama did what he could within the limits of his existing authority to re-open relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which ended when Castro took power. He re-established diplomatic relations between the two countries, and expanded opportunities to travel between the two countries. But he could not end the economic embargo against trade with Cuba without congressional approval. And, if there is one thing Republicans in Congress have made clear over the past eight years, it is that their raison d'etre during that time is to deny any victories to the first African-American president in our history.
That's a pity. But not for Barack Obama. He leaves office with his popularity on the way up; had he been able to run for a third term, there is little if any reason to doubt that he would have won it. (You can blame the Republicans for that one, too, of course.) It is, however, an epic tragedy for the Cuban people--and the most recent example of American meddling in their lives.
You can read about that history of meddling here. What you should learn from reviewing it is the fact that, from the administration of Thomas Jefferson onward, American governments have treated Cuba as a plaything, a toy to be used to advance our nation's military and financial interests at the expense of the interests of Cubans. Right-wingers have, by and large, done an effective job of suppressing that history. Unfortunately for them, Cubans have long memories beyond the reach of Breitbart and Fox News.
Ever wondered why someone as brutal as Castro stayed in power, decade after decade, through 11 different Presidencies? Was it the advancements in literacy and medical care? Was it the presence of Soviet military support and trade? Those things made a difference, but what really made a difference is the fact that Castro, at every possible opportunity, told the Cuban people that he and his government was the only thing standing in the way of Yankee meddling. Castro was the enemy of average Cubans, but he made sure they knew that America thought of him as its enemy. And so, the enemy of the greater enemy was their friend.
And that is why a return to Cold War levels of relations with Cuba will only keep in power either the current government, or one equally committed to anti-Americanism. Whatever shape that government ultimately takes, it will not be friendly to the U.S., no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
Which is why, instead of making such a return, we need to go in the opposite direction. We need to not only maintain the current level of relations, but build upon it, by ending the embargo.
Ending the embargo, without otherwise attempting to influence the political decisions that Cubans need to make about their future government, is the only way to end decades of meddling while still maintaining a voice in the process, via cultural and economic exchanges. It was the same basic process of detente that began the end of the Cold War. If that process could re-ignite democracy an entire hemisphere away, think of how much more powerful it can be when the distance is reduced to 90 miles.
The embargo, as a policy, is and has been a miserable failure for decades. It has done nothing to dent Castro's popularity; if anything, he turned it into a propaganda tool. The fools who have supported the maintenance of the embargo are the same right-wing fools who brought you the Cuban Missile Crisis, and damn nearly the end of the world, through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the continued deployment of outdated anti-Soviet missiles in Cuba, and the push during the crisis to bomb the Soviet missiles with B-52s. Yes, Kennedy went along with the first two mistakes, but the lessons he learned from doing so stopped him from listening any further to bad right-wing advice.
It's time to follow Kennedy's example. Maybe Trump will do this, since he has announced his intention to be a President and a real-estate developer at the same time. Cuba is ripe for more tourist-related development. Perhaps his hotel-and-casino instincts will override the need for Republicans to keep the Cuban vote in South Florida. Perhaps not. He has flip-flopped on so much between the election and now that, just on that basis, he belongs on a beach. G-d knows I'd rather see him on a beach than in the White House.
But, since he's going to be in the White House, we should all hope and pray that he does what is right for both America and Cuba. End the embargo, and give Cuba a chance to chart her own destiny, while still allowing us to have a place on board her.