Fidel Castro’s formal resignation as Cuba’s president marks the end of an era. Although it remains unclear how much influence he will continue to wield, after 49 years of formal rule by Fidel Castro, it is clear that Cuba will never be the same. It is also long past time for the free will of the Cuban people on the island to guide its future.
Unfortunately, neither the United States government nor the successor regime in Cuba appears prepared to deal with what comes next. At this historic time, a continuation of the status quo or a hardening of positions, either in Cuba or in U.S. policy toward Cuba, are not viable options.
Raul Castro and his immediate circle have a fateful decision to make: They can attempt to stand against the tide of democratic change, or they can play a constructive role in moving Cuba forward. It is important that they recognize the inevitability of change and begin to open the government to finally give a voice to the Cuban people. Releasing all political prisoners would be an unmistakable sign that the regime recognizes that it can no longer rely on repression.
On the U.S. side, policy from this day forward must send the clear message that the United States has no designs on Cuba’s future. U.S. policy must be marked by increased flexibility and greater openness, not shackled by anachronistic laws generated by a decades-long and fruitless obsession with bringing about Castro’s demise. A new direction for U.S. policy must commit to supporting the Cuban people in their desire to have an orderly and transparent transition that respects the rights of all concerned.
To mark this new direction, President Bush and Congress must relegate to the dust bin the so-called Helms-Burton law and the ideologically driven posturing that has passed for planning for a transition in Cuba. We must also open the way for the Cuban people to have increased access to our ideas and citizens, either as a peaceful countermeasure to a desperate attempt by the successor regime to cling to power, or to help the Cuban people, if they so desire, in their journey to a more open and democratic society.
For far too long narrow interests on both sides of the Straits of Florida have guided the United States and Cuba on a potential collision course; as Fidel Castro fades into history, it is time to recognize that the interests of all will be best served by an orderly, flexible, and peaceful transition to a free and democratic Cuba.
Dan Restrepo is the Director of the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.