Cuba After Castro

He had friends in all the right places.

Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

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 country free.

QuickTake Cuba-U.S. Reboot

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 improve. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.