In Miami people celebrated in the streets. In Havana the reaction was more nuanced, from shocked sadness among true believers to confusion about the future among those who chafed at the chains of his totalitarianism, but who knew no other leader. Such is the legacy of Fidel Castro, the fiery revolutionary who gave communism a foothold in the Western Hemisphere at the peak of the Cold War, and who outfoxed and outlasted 10 U.S. presidents. Castro, 90, died late Friday in his home country.
Castro's place in history had already been cemented by the time the ailing leader stepped from power in 2008, a half-century after he led an improbable revolution that replaced the pro-American dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista with his own. Castro quickly aligned himself with the Soviet Union, whose support enabled him to improve education, literacy and healthcare for his people.
But those advances came at a steep cost: Political repression including executions, beatings and imprisonment of dissidents and political opponents, the muzzling of free expression, a system of domestic surveillance, and a disastrously ineffective planned economy (including forced collectivization of farms). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost $3 billion a year in aid and its economy — long battered by the U.S. trade embargo and hollowed out by Castro's ill-fated experiments in collectivism — collapsed, with its GDP dropping 35% between 1987 and 1993, while real wages collapsed even further.
As the United States' geographically closest adversary — just 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida — Castro led Cuba to an outsize place in the world, evincing pride among some of his people. "I feel this in my heart," Havana security guard Mario Astoria told the Guardian Saturday. "When Fidel came to power this country was a pebble in the ocean. Now everyone knows about us."
He also became a role model for a range of revolutionary leftists around the world. He supported insurrections across Latin America, sent forces to Angola in the 1970s to back the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola against U.S.-supported rivals, and created a haven for American leftists and others facing criminal charges at home, from black nationalist Robert Williams in the 1960s to Assata Shakur, still wanted in connection with the 1973 slaying of a New Jersey state trooper.
Castro's decades-long standoff with the U.S., which survived multiple invasions and assassination attempts, helped build his reputation, even as his repressions at home led 1 million of his countrymen to flee. The exodus began with a flood in the first years of the revolution and continues under the regime now run by his younger brother and understudy, Raul Castro.
With Raul Castro's leadership, Cuba has made tentative steps toward the free-market reforms that his brother disdained and starting building the institutions that he distrusted. It also accepted a long-overdue rapprochement with the U.S., one that could offer hope of a brighter future to an oppressed people. It became clear over the years that the U.S. policy of international isolation and sanctions of the Castro regime harmed the Cuban people without weakening Castro's grip on power.
The Obama administration has been right to recalibrate U.S. policy toward Cuba, and his normalization of diplomatic relations was a large step in the right direction. But the congressionally mandated embargo on trade remains in effect, and the election of Donald J. Trump has introduced fresh uncertainty about the future of relations with Cuba. During the Republican primaries, Trump told an audience in Miami that Obama's administrative actions were "weak" and contained too many concessions, and said he would scrap them "unless the Castro regime meets our demands." But Saturday, while disparaging Castro as "a brutal dictator," Trump said he planned to help the Cuban people "begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty."
That's exactly what Trump should do, by continuing toward normalization of relations with Cuba. Much as the world in which Castro rose to power has shifted, the U.S. approach to the Cuban government needs to reflect the new world, as well. The Cold War is over. Fidel Castro is dead. Let's help Cuba move on.