The passing of Fidel Castro marks the exit of a man who changed the history of our hemisphere. Brutality and totalitarianism marked his dictatorship.
However, when I spoke to many Cuban people — most of them young — during our visit a few weeks ago, I noted mostly ambivalence about Fidel. There was much hope for a continuing thaw in Cuba’s relationship with the United States, excitement about the possible lifting of the embargo and the normalizing of ties, and change in the air with the liberalizations brought about by Raul Castro and his promise to leave office in 2018.
They fear to lose some of the things they like about their revolution, like free healthcare, access to education, and lack of homelessness, but there is a sincere desire for changes that would give their island nation access to much-needed resources to restore crumbling infrastructure and the availability of common goods and medicines.
There is trepidation about what will come after Raul Castro steps down in 2018. They worry there may be some chaos and that the way forward may not be clear.
Some say Fidel Castro turned Cuba into an “island prison.” That was no doubt true in the past, but we did not feel that at all during our visit. Everyone seemed free and open to sharing their opinions about their home, America, and the place they wanted in the world.
They adore President Obama, and mark his visit there as the new “before and after” in their history. They love America and Americans and are joyful that more of us are visiting. They hate the embargo, and call it the “genocide.”
But most of all, Cubans are ready for the future. At the time of our visit, they were hopeful for more normalization of ties under President Hillary Clinton, but now that Donald Trump is the president-elect, I have no idea how they feel. He has tweeted a promise to roll back the small steps Obama has taken toward restoring relations.
In my opinion, we should stay on our current president’s course. We should lift the embargo. It has failed, for 52 years, to drive the Castros from power. Note that Fidel outlived JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan. Note that he even outlasted the USSR.
The brightest future for the Cuban people, in my mind, lies in close ties with the US. We can influence them by showing them who we are, and our learning who they are, beyond the stereotypes of their nation given us during the Cold (and dead) War.