News of Fidel Castro's death took me back to October of 1962. My class sat nervously in the school lunchroom wondering whether we might be vaporized by a massive nuclear attack at any moment. We worried about the future as much as 13-year-olds can worry and felt vulnerable in a way we never had before, even as we had lived through more than a decade of warnings about Soviet surprise attacks that left us watching the skies for Russian bombers.
It made perfect sense for the United States to oppose, in every way possible, the Castro regime in Cuba, just 90 miles off Key West (as we were often reminded). We had heard reports about how brutal and uncivilized the Cuban dictator was. We believed the reports that he had trapped pigeons in his swanky New York hotel room and cooked them rather than eat the restaurant food he was sure was poisoned. We believed the reports of his brutality and immorality. He was a "Godless Communist." Enough said. America had to get rid of him. We tried in the Bay of Pigs but failed. We launched secret plots against him. We imposed an embargo against the whole nation of Cuba. The close ties between the United States and Cuba were severed forever. Americans could not travel to Cuba, but Cuban exiles were welcomed in South Florida, which was transformed by the many thousands of Spanish-speaking Cuban expatriates.
Even though the Cuban Missile Crisis passed without nuclear war, even though the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba's economy had to get by without Soviet financial support, even though Castro's regime became an archaic remnant of an impractical socialist dream, the U.S. embargo on Cuba remained in place. The political power of the South Florida Cuban emigres kept America shackled to a failed policy that accepted worse regimes around the world and failed to unseat Castro. Only after Fidel's health forced him to relinquish his total power over politics, economics and diplomacy and Barack Obama re-examined the failed logic behind the embargo were Americans able to travel to Cuba and trade with Cubans.
Fidel Castro latched onto a doomed political and economic system after the Cuban revolution, leading slowly to the sclerotic economy of today's Cuba, but a fair assessment must admit that he improved the lives of most Cubans. His policies provided free education and free medical care for all Cubans, giving Cubans, despite their low standard of living and lack of modern conveniences, good health and good educations. Most Cubans supported Castro and mourn him now because of those policies.
The post-Castro Cuba will likely become more open and accepting of foreign investment and more welcoming to American tourists, but the future will depend largely on how far Fidel's successors will go in opening the Cuban economy and encouraging free-market employment not dependent upon government jobs, as 80% of Cuban employment is now.