A year and a half ago, the announcement that most observers expected to hear any day from Cuba was that Fidel Castro, the island’s long-ruling communist caudillo, was dead from the gastro-intestinal problems that had transformed him from an elderly but vigorous leader into a wraith and forced him to temporarily transfer authority to his brother. Instead, he has done what some said he would never willingly do: resigned. The exact parameters of his health status remain unknown, as does knowledge regarding how much of an eminence grise he may remain in his dotage. One thing for certain, his impact, for good and ill, will not be soon forgotten.

With Castro officially out of the picture for the first time in 49 years, what next is on many minds, in Cuba, in southern Florida where the extensive Cuban exile community has transformed that part of the state nearly as much as Castro transformed the island, and elsewhere, including Washington, where those exiles have had an unbalanced influence on U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades.

What better time for the United States to have a positive impact on the sclerotic regime that runs Cuba by revamping its own sclerotic policies? This it could start by phasing out the 46-year-old embargo that has hurt average Cubans and given Castro a rhetorical cudgel and a mask, one to pummel U.S. policy, the other to conceal the regime’s failures and justify its excesses. No chance of that, it seems. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Tuesday that he couldn’t "imagine" an end to the U.S. embargo "happening any time soon."

For nearly five decades, Castro’s unique blend of what Spanish speakers call caudillismo and nationalistic communism has done more than any other factor to shape contradictory U.S. foreign policy throughout Latin America. Since the time of the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, the Caribbean has been seen as a U.S. "lake," Latin America as "our backyard." Out of this mindset grew an interventionism that brooked no meddlers from Europe and no objections from the peoples of the countries the U.S. chose to bring under its "protection." While the U.S. did not create most of the dictators of Latin America, it nurtured many of them.

The coming of Castro, who soon linked himself to America’s No. 1 foe, exacerbated the older policy of backing thugs like the Somozas in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Batista in Cuba, men who were said by FDR’s men to be sons of bitches, but "our" sons of bitches. That expression of pre-World War II realpolitik summarized quite well what would become, 50 years later, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine – in essence, a policy of support for "our" bad guys as less evil than letting "their" bad guys gain power.

Since the fiasco at the 1961 Bay of Pigs, the implementation of Operation Mongoose and the nuclear close-call of 1962, Castro has overshadowed all of U.S. policy in Latin America. From JFK’s hemispheric Alliance for Progress to the counter-insurgent "low-intensity conflicts" in Bolivia and Colombia, from support for the generals of Brazil, Argentina and Chile to the trumped-up invasions of the Dominican Republic and Grenada, from the one-sided slaughters in Guatemala to the full-scale civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, U.S. policy throughout the region has been, at root, about Fidel.

His ties to the USSR, which led Cuba into the disastrous, Cold War-inflamed Angolan civil war as well as behind-the-scenes counsel and arms for revolutionaries in this hemisphere, gave impetus to those who – pressed by Cuban exiles – sought to keep the dictator in a box all these years.

Ruthless, erudite, confident, Castro became an anachronism, an old man whose six-hour television rants were joked about even by the very many Cubans who still revered him. He always credited the power of great ideas. Yet he allowed nothing but the most tepid challenges to his own thoughts on practically every matter of consequence. The mildest dissent risked harassment; more outspoken dissidents went into the dreaded prison system for long terms. Human rights groups believe that the number of political prisoners continues to be underestimated. Reports of torture have not been uncommon. The European Union, which, unlike the U.S., has tried to engage Castro with economic assistance, soured a few years ago over his intransigence and iron-fisted resistance to the mildest dissent. The pearls of the revolution, the education and health care systems that a few of Castro's toughest critics conceded were impressive, are in tatters.

So, too, is U.S. policy. The embargo, which Castro used as an excuse for economic failure, has long since outlived whatever usefulness it may once arguably have had. Castro was the devil all the while the U.S. backed bloodthirsty dictators such as Mobutu in Zaire and Shah Pahlevi in Iran, spoke glowingly of Rios Montt in Guatemala and Pinochet in Chile, toasted Argentine and Brazilian generals and secretly sold weapons to the Iranian mullahs in order to arm terrorists in Nicaragua.

Castro was certainly a tough-minded autocrat. And, despite changes in most of the rest of the communist world, Cuba made no moves toward even cosmetic forms of democracy. But Castro was no Saddam, no Kim Jong-il. And he was certainly no Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan who reputedly boiled his enemies and with whom Washington seems on the verge of rapprochement. The U.S. has an embassy and trade relations with Communist Vietnam and Laos. Washington has had normal relations with Beijing for more than 25 years. An embassy in Libya will soon open. All countries with abysmal human rights records. Washington lets two Cuban terrorists – Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada – live unrestrained on our soil.

And yet Cuba itself remains a pariah.

Senator Clinton says:

"I would say to the new leadership, the people of the United States are ready to meet you if you move forward towards the path of democracy, with real, substantial reforms. The people of Cuba yearn for the opportunity to get out from under the weight of this authoritarian regime, which has held back 11 million talented and hardworking citizens of the Americas. The new government should take this opportunity to release political prisoners and to take serious steps towards democracy that give their people a real voice in their government."

Senator Obama says:

"The prompt release of all prisoners of conscience wrongly jailed for standing up for the basic freedoms too long denied to the Cuban people would mark an important break with the past."

Senator McCain says:

"We must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections."

Indeed. But encouraging these changes could best be done now by phasing out the embargo that was tightened both in the Clinton and Bush years. It makes less sense now than ever before. Since Mister Bush will not do so, the new administration in January could start off on a good foot by relaxing travel restrictions and remittances from Cubans abroad and begin the process of an early restoration of diplomatic relations. Human rights matters and issues such as half-century-old expropriations can best be worked out by first removing one of the chief hostilities between our two nations, a move that will benefit both Cubans still on the island and those in exile.

A Diary on this subject worth reading is here.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Tue Feb 19, 2008 at 03:49 PM PST.

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