With the passing of Fidel Castro, American policy toward Cuba is back in the spotlight.
The small island nation just 90 miles off of American shores has been ruled with an iron fist for over 50 years by Fidel and his brother Raul, who, in attempting to make real their visions of a communist society, have primarily succeeded in keeping Cubans poor and less free than most in Latin America.
Though the death of Fidel Castro is certainly not the end of tyranny on the island — he effectively handed off power to his brother in 2006 — it is imperative that the United States learn from history and engage effectively with Cuba with the aim of encouraging greater freedoms.
Castro, who came to power in 1959 following the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista — an American-backed dictator whose rule later was described by President Kennedy as "one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression" — regrettably followed in the footsteps of his predecessor.
Mass executions, land seizures and the arrest of political dissidents became commonplace. More than anything, though, it was Castro's suspected and eventually confirmed commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology that ultimately prompted the United States to take actions which not only failed to dislodge the Castro regime, but in many ways reinforced and emboldened it, to the detriment of the Cuban people.
In addition to numerous plots to assassinate Castro, as well as the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the United States imposed and has maintained ever since a trade embargo on Cuba, which, for decades, has been the regime's chief scapegoat for the ills and failures of communist rule.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy, out of necessity, has gradually liberalized some sectors of its economy. But there is still obviously tremendous work to be done to expand freedoms on the island, restore basic freedoms of speech, expression and travel, and continue the process of liberalizing the economy. There are families to be reunited and religious liberties to be protected.
What matters most, perhaps, is how best to achieve the end of tyranny in Cuba, with the aim of actually improving the lives of the Cuban people and facilitating a more acceptable state of affairs.
In a novel approach among American leaders, President Obama, citing the "failed approach of the past," has maintained a policy of engagement toward Cuba, capped off by a historic visit to Havana and easing of the embargo.
It's an approach that may be reversed with the incoming Trump administration.
"Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners — these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships," incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told Fox News Sunday.
Trump took to Twitter Monday pledging to undo the current "deal" unless Cuban leaders "make a better deal for the Cuban people."
While there's little disputing the desired outcomes, this is not the time to consider disengaging from Cuba. As the past five decades have proven, embargoes and not talking aren't especially productive means of engagement. Freer trade and open discussion are likelier to yield better outcomes for the Cuban people than the opposite.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER