Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary who ran the country from 1976 to 2008, died on Nov. 25. His death received a wide range of reactions from the international community, from outright celebrations of his final breath to condolences from major world leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, who had nothing butpraise for one of the most controversial statesmen of the Western Hemisphere.
Castro's leadership of North America's first single-party state in the wake of overthrowing the island’s CIA-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, would permanently shift how Cuba interacted with the rest of the world. His death is equally impacting.
Castro officially stepped away from the Cuban leadership in 2008 as his age began to catch up with him, transferring power to his younger brother Raul Castro. This shift of power was seen as, perhaps, the first sign of change in Cuba's government. For a short while, it appeared that there were some signs of progress under his brother’s reign.
His brother’s administration implemented many economic reforms that encouraged private investment and reduction of presidential powers. Many devices that were illegal during Fidel’s presidency became more accessible, such as computers and DVD players. His administration’s biggest achievement, however, is most likely the Cuba Thaw, the nickname given to the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. In March of 2016, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in over 80 years.
Obama's visit, though it can be regarded as a diplomatic milestone, was mired in some degree of controversy. While Cuba was most certainly not the country that Fidel ran when he was in power, it still resided in his shadow, to an extent. Fidel's treatment of religious activities, dissidents and the LGBT community are just a few of the human rights abuses that the dictator had under his name. He had, slowly, begun to adopt much more liberal positions regarding these once-heavily persecuted groups, but the open government crackdowns that occurred with terrifying regularity were not forgotten.
Following Fidel's death, his brother announced that there would be no monuments with his name in Cuba in the hopes of avoiding rebellion developing around him as it did with fellow revolutionary Che Guevara. Guevara’s image became popular around the world, but his actions and beliefs seem to be lost as those who wear his face on a T-shirt do not understand its significance. Fidel's legacy, it would seem, would have to be determined by those who remembered him and not by a street sign with his name plastered across it. Memory, however, does not unfold in the same way for everyone.
For the Cuban diaspora that fled Fidel’s regime, his reign brought an economic malaise onto the island. This was a result of overly aggressive efforts to keep a planned economy in a country that was slowly losing financial support, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those who stayed during his implementation of universal education and healthcare, Cuba was made one of the most literate nations in the world, with one of the finest medical care systems.
Cuba is a nation caught at a crossroads. While steps are being taken to bring the country into a world where Cuba is not isolated, the freedoms of its people are denied. There are substantial improvements that can be made to create a much more breathable political atmosphere for its people. Raul’s announcement to step down after his second term as president is one such tiny step, as symbolic as it may possibly be.
There is something the international community can do, something especially the United States can do. The United States can support Cuba, which is a deceptively simple endeavor. It takes faith and innovation to bring a nation onto the world stage, but it also requires cooperation. When Obama suggested a new foreign policy of not "freezing-out" nations during his first presidential run, the press had labeled him as a politically inexperienced and naive president.
The Cuba Thaw has proved him right, if only in the sense of dialogue that took place so far. These initial communications with the island-nation are a stepping stone. How the new presidential team will treat this progress remains to be seen, but considering its staunch "United States first" position and criticisms of Fidel, there does not seem to be much potential for further talks. It would be quite the shame if the United States did not keep moving forward to try to resolve Cuban issues.