Two decades of “Castro-is-dead” rumors are finally at an end. And the race is on to see which world leader can most fulsomely praise Fidel Castro’s legacy, while delicately averting their eyes from his less savory characteristics. Two duly elected leaders of democracies who should know better, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and American president Barack Obama, are leading the way. Mr. Trudeau praised Castro as a “legendary revolutionary and orator” who “made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation.” Mr. Obama offered his “condolences” to the Cuban people, and blandly suggested that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure.” Now, he added, we can “look to the future.”
With all due respect to Mr. Obama, the 60 years Fidel Castro spent systematically exploiting and oppressing the people of Cuba provide more than enough history to pass judgment on both Fidel and, now more importantly, his brother Raul.
My own family’s experience is a case in point. My father, Rafael, had been an early supporter of the revolution against Fulgencio Batista — and spent a time in prison getting his teeth kicked in for his efforts. He fled the island, only to return to what he hoped would be a liberated Cuba. Instead, he found a new, even more brutal, form of repression had taken hold. In 1960, he left again, never to return. His sister, my Tia Sonia, bravely joined the resistance to Castro and was jailed and tortured in her turn.
The betrayal and violence experienced by my father and aunt were all too typical of the millions of Cubans who have suffered under the Castro regime over the last six decades. This is not the stuff of Cold War history that can be swept under the rug simply because Fidel is dead. Consider, for example, the dissidents Guillermo Fariñas and Elizardo Sanchez, who warned me in the summer of 2013 that the Castros, then on the ropes because of the reduction of Venezuelan patronage, were plotting to cement their hold on power by pretending to liberalize in order to get the American economic embargo lifted. Their model was Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia (Sanchez called it “Putinismo”), and their plan was to get the United States to pay for it. It worked. The year after I met with Fariñas and Sanchez, Mr. Obama announced his famous “thaw” with the Castros, and the American dollars started flowing. As we now know, there was no corresponding political liberalization. Last September, Mr. Fariñas concluded his 25th hunger strike against the Castros’ oppression.
Then there is the case of the prominent dissident Oswaldo Paya, who in 2012 died in a car crash that is widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Castro regime. His daughter, Rosa Maria, has pressed relentlessly for answers, and thus become a target herself. When, just three years after her father’s death, the United States honored the Castros with a new embassy in Washington, D.C., Rosa Maria tried to attend the related State Department press conference as an accredited journalist. But she was spotted by the Cuban delegation, who demanded that she be removed if she dared ask any questions. The Americans complied, in an act of thuggery more typical of Havana than Washington.
Finally, I had the honor last summer to meet with Dr. Oscar Biscet, an early truth-teller about the disgusting practice of post-birth abortions in Cuba who has been repeatedly jailed and tortured for his fearless opposition to the Castros. I asked him, as I had asked Senores Farinas and Sanchez, whether his ability to travel signaled growing freedom on the island. He answered just as they had three years earlier: “No.” In fact, he said, the repression had grown worse since the “thaw” with America. Didn’t we realize, he wondered, that all those American dollars were flowing into the Castros’ pockets, and funding the next generation of their police state?
That is the true legacy of Fidel Castro — that he was able to institutionalize his dictatorship so it would survive him.
There is a real danger that we will now fall into the trap of thinking Fidel’s death represents material change in Cuba. It does not. The moment to exert maximum pressure would have been eight years ago, when his failing health forced him to pass control to his brother Raul. But, rather than leverage the transition in our favor, the Obama administration decided to start negotiations with Raul in the mistaken belief that he would prove more reasonable than his brother (an unfortunate pattern they repeated with Kim Jong-un, Hassan Rouhani, and Nicolas Maduro). Efforts to be diplomatically polite about Fidel’s death suggest the administration still hopes Raul can be brought round.
#related#All historical evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Raul is not a “different” Castro. He is his brother’s chosen successor who has spent the last eight years implementing his dynastic plan. Unlike Cuba, however, the United States has an actual democracy, and our recent elections suggest there is significant resistance among the American people to the Obama administration’s policy of appeasement towards hostile dictators. We can — and should — send clear signals that that policy is at an end. Among other things, we should halt the dangerous “security cooperation” we have begun with the Castro regime, which extends to military exercises, counter-narcotics efforts, communications, and navigation — all of which places our sensitive information in the hands of a hostile government that would not hesitate to share it with other enemies from Tehran to Pyongyang. And we should insist that no United States government official attend Castro’s funeral unless and until Raul releases his political prisoners, first and foremost those who have been detained since Fidel’s death. I hope all my colleagues will join me in calling for these alterations.
A dictator is dead. But his dark, repressive legacy will not automatically follow him to the grave. Change can come to Cuba, but only if America learns from history and prevents Fidel’s successor from playing the same old tricks.