Cold War legacy fades in Cuba

By Arthur I. Cyr

Yet another intimate portrait has just emerged about one of the most prominent and pivotal world leaders of the early 1960s, arguably the most dangerous and highly charged years of the Cold War.

An iconic hero for many thanks to his charismatic personality and demonstrated courage, this former head of state is also controversial thanks to personal behavior, which can only be described as having been reckless. This reference of course is to Fidel Castro, who at the age of 85 has published an appropriately lengthy autobiography, in two volumes and numbering approximately one thousand pages. According to Havana’s state television, Castro described his literary work in detail over six straight hours before a convention center audience. The country is now led by Raul Castro, by all accounts firmly in charge but lacking the popular appeal of his older brother. Enemies join with admirers in agreeing that Fidel possessed a unique leadership style before age and illness led him to retire from the presidency in 2008. His singular charisma continues to facilitate the regime’s half-century in power. After Havana was captured and despised dictator Fulgencio Batista fled in early 1959, Raul Castro handled bloody mass executions with efficient dispatch, and since has provided effective leadership of the military and a pervasive domestic security apparatus. Soon after taking power, the brothers Castro ended hopes for representative democracy and nationalized major industries, including U.S. corporate assets. Fidel Castro highlighted alliance with the Soviet Union by joining Nikita Khrushchev in a remarkably raucous 1960 visit to the United Nations in New York, punctuated by the Soviet leader publicly pounding a shoe on a desk. The Eisenhower administration began a clandestine effort to overthrow the increasingly radical regime. The successor Kennedy administration drastically escalated such efforts. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 stands out as especially dangerous among Cold War confrontations. In recent years, the evolution of the Americas toward democratic governments has been striking. As a result, Cuba is more isolated than ever. The Soviet Union, the main source of subsidy, collapsed nearly two decades ago. Venezuela provides much more limited aid. When Fidel Castro stepped down, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a formal public statement endorsed the desirability of “peaceful, democratic change” in Cuba and also suggested that the “international community” work with the people there. The Bush administration had been pursuing a particularly restrictive hard line toward that island nation. President Obama early in his administration loosened extremely tight restrictions on interchange with Cuba. Cuban-Americans are now allowed to travel and send financial remittances to relatives still living there. Additionally, telecommunications companies may now pursue licensing agreements in Cuba.

As part of such efforts, we should work to expand cultural as well as personal family exchanges with the island. President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated comparable programs with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, to great benefit.

The punitive Helms-Burton Act, passed during the Clinton administration in an effort to court the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban population of Florida, does not prohibit these exchanges. For Raul Castro encouraging trade and investment are priorities, along with loosening restrictions. At the end of January, he presided over a special “National Conference” of the Cuba Communist Party, which emphasized these goals. This represents remarkable acceptance of reality. Everyone favoring democracy and competitive market economies should be encouraged. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at