It has long been my bitter hunch that the man I can’t help think of as the last monster of the 20th century, Fidel Castro, creator and warden of the floating prison to our south, would die of old age in a big brass bed, a snifter of brandy in one hand and a good cigar in the other. No firing squad, no prison. He’d leave thinking he got away with it all. He had that kind of luck. The devil takes care of his own.
I hated that hunch.
Now Cuban authorities say Castro has temporarily stepped down due to ill health. And it is possible this is true. It is just as possible that Castro is dead, and that what we are witnessing is not the graceful and temporary relinquishing of power—that would be unlike our Fidel, whose frozen fingers would more likely have to be peeled off the steering wheel with the back of a hammer—but the spinning of the death of a monster whose sudden departure might shock the people of Cuba into something like movement toward progress. And so Fidel is “sick” and his brother “stepping in.” One suspects that in the coming weeks Castro will “take a turn for the worse,” and that Raul Castro will take to hurried midnight visits to an empty hospital room, offering afterward to the waiting media both color coverage and play by play: “The tubes have been taken out. He mouthed the words, ‘Tell the people I love them, and leave them in good hands.’”
Then, once the spontaneous mourning demonstrations have been arranged, will come word of his passing.
The pre-positioning of Raul solves a potential struggle for succession and inhibits competitors. The world gets used to him. Things continue as they were. Forty-seven years becomes 48, and 49 . . .
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What to do now?
How about this: Treat it as an opportunity. Use the change of facts to announce a change of course. Declare the old way over. Declare a new U.S.–Cuban relationship, blow open the doors of commerce and human interaction, allow American investment and tourism, mix it up, reach out one by one and person by person to the people of Cuba. “Flood the zone.” Flood it with incipient prosperity and the insinuation of democratic values. Let Castroism drown in it.
The American economic embargo of Cuba is 40 years old. It has been called ineffective—it did not produce Fidel’s downfall. It has been called effective—it kept the squeeze on, demonstrated what communism reaped and reaps. In any case it was right to deny a monstrous regime contact with, and implicit encouragement from, the American democracy.
All fair enough. But the monster may be dead and is surely dying. In any case, what remains of Cuban communism dies with him. Cubans don’t know what they are economically except one thing: poor.
Castro survived the ruin of his economy—he had the guns—and he used his resistance to isolation to enhance his mystique. Fearless Fidel faced down the yanqui. Still, he was forced to swerve and pivot. In 1994, after Soviet cash supports had ended, he was forced to allow some modest individual self-employment.
With Castro gone, why not seize the moment for some wise, judicious, free-market love-bombing?
As in: Allow Americans to go to Cuba. Allow U.S. private money into Cuba. Let hotels, homes, restaurants, stores be developed, bought, opened, reopened. Use Fidel’s death to reintroduce Cubans on the ground to Americans, American ways, American money and American freedom. Remind them of what they wanted, what they thought they were getting when the bearded one came down from the Sierra Maestre. Use his death/illness/collapse/disappearing act as an excuse to turn the past 40 years of policy on its head. Declare him over. Create new ties. Ignore the dictator, make partnerships with the people.
Yes give more money to Radio Marti and all Western government efforts to communicate with the people of Cuba. But also allow American media companies in. Make a jumble, shake it up, allow the conditions that can help create economic vibrancy and let that reinspire democratic thinking. The Cuban government, hit on all fronts by dynamism for the first time in half a century, will not be able to control it all.
That is how to undo Fidel, and Fidelism. That’s how to give him, on the chance he’s alive, a last and lingering headache. That’s how to puncture his mystique. Let his people profit as he dies.
If he is actually ill, why not arrange it so that the last sounds he hears on earth are a great racket from the streets? What, he will ask the nurse, is that? “Oh,” she can explain, “they are rebuilding Havana. It’s the Hilton Corp. Except for the drills. That’s Steve Wynn. The jackhammer is Ave Maria University, building an extension campus.”
Imagine him hearing this. It would, finally, be the exploding cigar. That’s the way to make his beard fall off.
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What is the reason we don’t do this—open Cuba as far as we can, retake it with soft, individual, and corporate power, let the marketplace do the heavy lifting? Tradition, habit, prevailing concepts. Politics. As all but children know, Florida is a swing state, and Cubans forced to flee Castro—and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren—justly and rightly hate Fidel, dictatorship, all dictatorships. Their vote is significant and can swing the swing state. Cuban Americans know how to cohere and to show loyalty and antipathy within the democratic drama. Good. But I hope they are thinking about how to defeat Castroism now, today, with today’s conditions. They’re in the right war, but all good fighters know to shift troops, weapons and tactics when the landscape changes.
There is little President Bush can do, which, considering the politics of the matter, would be a relief to the White House. The president’s hands are pretty much tied by the 1996 Helms–Burton Act, which keeps the U.S. government from lifting sanctions on Cuba or changing current arrangements until Castro frees his political prisoners and announces authentic elections.
Assuming he’s too dead to do that, it won’t happen. It wouldn’t happen anyway, as he never admitted he had political prisoners or didn’t hold real elections.
Congress could repeal Helms–Burton, and the administration could flood the zone, drowning Castroism in it. This could yield a great public good not only for the people of Cuba, and America, but the world.