Guest Opinion: Time for a Cuban renaissance

​The San Diego Union-Tribune
Nov. 29
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Fidel Castro is one of the outsized figures of modern history. Even after his death, the charismatic Cuban dictator will endure as a global symbol of socialism and anti-Americanism and a hero to oppressed minorities around the world.

There are many perspectives with which to view his life and legacy. Two seem most relevant. The first is the immense gap between the deep respect that Castro enjoyed from pockets of the left and the savagery with which he governed. The second is the potential for a post-Castro Cuban renaissance.

Castro took power in a 1959 coup — one animated by nationalism, not Marxism — that ousted a dictatorial regime seen as a U.S. puppet. His government seized vast swaths of private property, including American oil refineries and hotels. After Cuba began providing free health care and public education, Castro was embraced by progressives the world round for offering a functioning alternative to capitalist nations they saw as dominated by avarice. And after the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Castro was celebrated in the Third World for having dealt imperialism a rare defeat.

But back home, Castro quickly established that he was the oppressor, abandoning nationalism for a communism that revoked basic human rights. His dictatorship killed thousands of dissenters, imprisoned gay people and “enemies of the state,” and treated Cubans with HIV like pariahs. Castro created an impoverished nation that missed out on the late 20th-century growth that spawned large middle classes in many Latin American nations. And in a nation that is 62 percent black and mixed race, power was wielded almost entirely by Castro and other white Cubans of Spanish descent. No wonder hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Florida.

Castro’s devotion to communism was subsidized by the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991 led the Cuban economy to contract by nearly 40 percent. This triggered unrest significant enough that Castro sought to spark the economy by promoting international tourism and semi-legalizing the U.S. dollar. After an ailing Castro turned control over to brother Raul in 2006, further limited moves opened up more of the economy. This process accelerated in 2015 when President Obama announced steps had been taken to normalize diplomatic relations, leading to his visit this March.

Now Raul Castro should begin a more sweeping political and economic modernization — we hope with the support of the United States. Instead of relying on such Caribbean basics as tourism, rum and sugar exports, Havana should think big. With its highly literate population and inexpensive labor and location just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, Cuba could become a manufacturing hub.

President-elect Donald Trump is cool to Obama’s initiative and has indicated he may want a “better deal” from Havana. If he means a quicker acceptance of human rights by Cuban authorities, that’s tough to criticize. But the United States should focus more on encouragement than bullying in the short term. Fidel Castro’s death presents a giant opportunity for 11 million Cubans to enjoy better, freer, richer lives. Going forward, that should be the central goal of U.S.-Cuba relations.