FOR MORE THAN half a century, Fidel Castro ruled Cuba under an epic dictatorship that played an outsized role in the politics of the entire region. At times, he dominated the world stage, bringing Cold War tensions and the terrifying threat of nuclear war within 90 miles of US shores.
For the last six decades, until his death Friday at age 90, there was no Cuba without Fidel, no Florida without Cuban Americans who fled there to escape him. Many of them liked to say: No hay mal que dure cien años. There is no evil that lasts a hundred years. As Castro aged — he had been ailing for so long that erroneous reports of his death circulated many times — Cuba slowly drifted toward a policy of rapprochement with the US. As a result, relations have warmed, despite an enduring and ineffective embargo that never achieved its goal of dislodging Castro’s regime. As Castro is eulogized and vilified as the ultimate antagonist of America, the question remains what’s next for US-Cuba relations as President-elect Donald Trump assumes power.
Castro’s revolution ended up being a study in stark contrasts: To the world, it was both compelling and atrocious, as aspirational as it was appalling. He set out with a noble ideal: to free the island from the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. His ideals hardened as he aligned with the Soviet Union and became a strongman who was ultimately responsible for the death of thousands of dissidents.
But Castro was adept at creating an image of a supposed egalitarian paradise that offered free medical care and education for the masses, and blaming the US embargo for the Caribbean nation’s entrenched poverty and isolation. He played the role of David to the US Goliath perfectly, time and again.
There are many lessons that President-elect Trump could learn from the US experience with Castro. “It will be important for the United States to tread carefully: now more than ever, the Cubans have to own what happens next. Any sign of manipulation, imposition or influence by Washington will only hurt the cause of freedom and reform in Cuba,” says Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
In due course, history will judge Castro’s legacy. In the meantime, there’s also grave danger in scaling back the progress made by the Obama administration in re-establishing relations with Cuba. Castro’s death will hopefully remove an obstacle for the Cuban American establishment in Florida that has largely been opposed to opening relations with Cuba. The incoming Trump administration must continue the process of establishing relations on all levels, including working with Congress to finally repeal the embargo.
At long last, the passing of Castro coupled with the thaw in relations between Washington and Havana seems a final coda to the Cold War. Robert McNamara described that most perilous moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as a time when the world “literally looked down the gun barrel of nuclear war.” Those lessons should not be lost to history but should remind the incoming administration of the complex, interlocking nature of global power and the high stakes inherent in negotiating US interests.