Cuba: Converting Castro

Adios, Fidel. When your resignation was announced in the dark before dawn Tuesday morning, your political obituaries had all been written in anticipation of your long-awaited death. That hasn't come yet, but this political demise will do to start lots of fresh speculation about Cuba's future. When will your uncharismatic brother lose his grip? When will the specter of communism at last be exorcised? It's about time, certainly, after 49 years suffocating the hopes, dreams, expectations and expression of a vibrant people. But I think the answer, in fact, is "not soon."

If the U.S. presidential campaign were about policy instead of personalities, then your resignation, Fidel, might be just the thing to start a serious debate about the future of democracy in Cuba and indeed in much of the rest of the world. What can the United States do to help spread both freedom and stability? What should it do? Are boycotts and isolation the answer? You have withstood them for almost half a century. Iran is prepared to hold out against those that can be mustered against it. Syria's mafia-style dictatorship seems to thrive on embargos. The sanctions against Iraq from 1990 to 2003, the most draconian in history, actually helped Saddam Hussein strengthen his grip on absolute power. So, are invasion and occupation a better answer? Clearly not if they're carried out like the $2 billion-a-week fiasco in Iraq, and probably not at all.

So, Fidel, let's you and I watch this campaign to see if anyone dares to come up with the only strategy that has a prayer of crushing the tyranny you've imposed on your country: the warm embrace of the United States.

More than 25 years ago when I first went to your island, right-wing Latin American diplomats would tell me the way to kill your revolution was with kindness. If the United States were not huffing and puffing and threatening to blow your house down, Cubans could focus on their hopes instead of their fears, and you just wouldn't be able to deliver. As I wrote at the time, yours was a revolution of lowered expectations, and the only way for you to justify that was to point at the external threat.

Year after year, decade after decade, one occupant of the White House after another has continued to oblige you, Fidel, by rattling the saber at your country or slamming the door on it, or both. You must have lit up a lot of Cohibas to celebrate. In the early 1990s all the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, collapsed in the space of three years. They were sucked into the embrace of infinitely richer Western Europe. Of all of Moscow's client regimes, in fact, only yours survived, blessed as it was by proximity to the unrelenting, unforgiving and unthinking American behemoth.

I do not expect enlightenment to arrive in Washington any time soon. The sad fact for your people, Fidel, is that their country is too small and too poor to encourage new thinking. When American business interests look at Communist China, for instance, they see a market with more than a billion potential consumers. They also see the vast quantity of cheap labor willing and able to manufacture just about anything the world thinks it needs. So of course they cut Beijing a break on non-democracy and un-human rights, and embrace it, and some would say become almost dependent on it.

Your island, Fidel, has maybe 12 million people, and there are plenty of other places these days to get rum, sun and cigars. But that wasn't really your problem, was it? Your business was never business. Your business was just to keep yourself and your system, such as it is, in power. To that end the shift of the global economy toward new centers of gravity in China and the petro-states might well do you good. Oil-rich Venezuela under Hugo Chavez already has bought your brand of anti-Americanism and is marketing it all over the map. Washington's soft power as well as its hard line has been compromised. The opportunity to kill you with kindness is passing.

So, adios, old man. Retirement can't come easy to a tyrant of such long standing. But at least you can rest assured that between the cupidity of U.S. politicians and the cacique of Caracas, your regime will find a way to live on without you.