All human beings — from the most virtuous to the most villainous — are mortal. There are no exceptions to the rule that everything that lives must die.
We all know this is true, in public life and private. Once in a while, however, there is an individual who occupies a particular position for so long that we almost forget that he is mortal. We know, intellectually, that he won’t always be there, but some part of us finds it difficult to imagine the world – or at least his small piece of the world — without him.
Fidel Castro was such a figure. I was a toddler when he came to power in Cubain 1959, and I was on the verge of (an admittedly premature) disability retirement in 2011, when ill health forced him to yield power to his brother Raul. And I was already twice a grandfather when he died recently at the age of 90.
This was a period in which the fear of nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was widespread and pervasive. Those of us who attended public schools during that period have memories of what they called “shelter drills”– during which we practiced sitting under our desks or on the floor in the hallway. (How this was supposed to help us in the event of nuclear attack remains a mystery.)
It’s easy for us, who know how that story ended, to dismiss that fear as exaggerated, but it certainly seemed real at the time. So when President John F. Kennedy made public the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba and announced the quarantine of Cuba in response, the world held its breath.
Clearly, no American President could have tolerated a nuclear arsenal controlled by the Soviet Union on an island 90 miles off the coast of Florida.) Some of President Kennedy’s advisors favored an immediate invasion of Cuba, while others favored quiet diplomacy, without publicity. The President, however, while seeking a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, chose to make the Soviet provocation and the resulting quarantine public.
Who blinked, President Kennedy or the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev? Historians will continue to debate that and related questions for years to come, and I doubt that there will ever be a complete historical consensus. Nor are we likely to agree as to what might have happened had Kennedy chosen a different course of action. What is clear is that regardless of which superpower lost in that confrontation, tiny Cuba and its dictator, Fidel Castro, clearly won.
Part of the deal that resolved the crisis was an American promise not to invade Cuba. For the first and only time the United States agreed to tolerate indefinitely a hostile regime in the Western hemisphere, a commitment that our country has kept for more than half a century, through ten administrations of both political parties. As long as Castro remained peaceful, and did not openly seek to foment revolution in other Latin American countries — and as long as nuclear weapons were not deployed on Cuban soil — the US would not seek to overthrow the Cuban dictator by force.
To appreciate the significance of that commitment, we need merely recall the countries in this hemisphere in which the US has intervened during that same half century: Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama. That agreement enabled Castro to accomplish what few authoritarian dictators of any ideological stripe have managed to achieve — he transferred power to his brother without violence when he became too sick to rule, and he died peacefully in his bed at the age of 90.
It is one of the ironies of history, however, that the very agreement that was the source of Castro’s longevity also rendered him, for the most part, internationally irrelevant. Recognizing that, he had won a privilege rare in his hemisphere, he was careful not to give the US an excuse to overthrow him. The Soviets made no further effort to deploy missiles in Cuba and largely forgot about Castro. For his part, though he sometimes tweaked the United States by making a show of support for left-leaning Latin American dictators, Castro was careful to avoid direct intervention, which might have provoked an American attack.
Castro’s one attempt to forge a larger role on the world stage was Cuba’s intervention in the Angolan civil war beginning in 1975 after Portugal’s withdrawal from its African colonies. No one had considered, at the time of the missile crisis, the possibility of Cuban intervention outside the Western hemisphere, so Castro’s intervention in Africa didn’t actually violate the agreement. Subsequently declassified documents have confirmed, however, that Henry Kissinger, who at the time was President Gerald Ford’s Secretaty of State, was furious at Castro’s African intervention and began preparing contingency plans for military action. Both Kissinger and Ford agreed that it would be unwise to act against Castro before the 1976 Presidential election, and Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Ford in that election made Kissinger’s contingency planning moot.
Because of the unprecedented nature of the agreement that ended the Cuban missile crisis, relations between the United States and Cuba sometimes have seemed to be frozen in 1962. The economic embargo of Cuba, which continues to this day, was never easy to understand since we maintained normal trade relations with the Soviet Union throughout the cold war. But any viable rationale for that policy surely disappeared when the Soviet Union did, in 1991. Since then, we have been pursuing a policy aimed at isolating Cuba as an outpost of a rival superpower that no longer exists. Is there any rational way to understand this policy?
Actually, there is — as a function not of foreign policy but rather of domestic politics. Although they are sometimes spoken of as part of an undifferentiated Hiapanic community, Cuban Americans form a distinct subgroup with its own opinions and interests. Most Cuban Americans either fled Cuba when or shortly after Castro came to power, or are the children of those who did. For them, maintaining economic sanctions against Cuba has been a fundamental principle that will brook no compromise. Cuban Americans are scattered throughout the country, but the largest number of them (about 23% as of the last census) are concentrated in the politically pivotal state of Florida.
Under most circumstances in any representative democracy, a smaller but more focused minority will prevail in policy debates on a specific policy issue over a larger, more ambivalent majority. (That phenomenon has also served the pro-Israel community well.) I suspect that most Americans, if asked, would favor phasing out the Cuba embargo, but the Cuban American community’s staunch opposition to any relaxation of the sanctions has prevailed.
Will Fidel Castro’s death change that dynamic? It’s hard to be sure. Fidel had not exercised any power in Cuba since turning the reins of government over to his brother. If those demanding a continuation of the embargo equate Fidel Castro with his brother Raul, then Fidel’s death is not a regime change and should have no effect. If, on the other hand Raul is a transitional figure who intends to play in Cuba the kind of role that Mikhail Gorbachev played in the waning days of the Soviet Union, then at some point even the most implacable enemy of Castro will presumably declare victory and accept the restoration of both trade and diplomatic relations.
In either event, on a practical level Fidel Castro’s death shouldn’t change the current trajectory of US-Cuban relations. On a symbolic level, however, his dearth may have been a prerequisite to improved relations between the two countries. Because of his extraordinary longevity, Castro was something of a challenge to our belief in human mortality, so his should be a reassurance that despite occasional appearances to the contrary, there is no exception to the rule that everything that lives must die.