Within the context of the contemporary geopolitical landscape of the Americas and globally, Fidel Castro’s death is irrelevant. The Cold War relic remains pure symbolism and a topic for historical debate. History already moved on a long time ago. However, Castro left behind a nation in shambles after decades in power. Others will struggle to pick up the pieces in future. Unfortunately, such a fate is not limited to Cuba. Venezuela confronts a similar reality.
Despite Fidel’s death, Cuba’s communist regime still survives. The power transfer to Raul, Fidel’s brother, took place in 2008. Unless Raul experiences some form of transformation and opts for a real – and not cosmetic - political opening, continuity in Cuba will prevail for the foreseeable future. The limited economic opening of the immediate past was designed primarily to preserve the regime and status quo.
In recent years, Castro’s Communist Revolution, and its ideologically populist offsprings such as Chavismo, have been largely overshadowed by an historic transformation taking place throughout much of the Americas via constructive evolutionary, and not revolutionary, change. It is marked by increasing civic participation and intolerance for corruption, expanding rule of law, changes of government through ballots and not bullets, and the strengthening of the institutions of civil society.
The protagonists of this evolution are not figures of any cult of personality employing the threat of violence, or its use, as a means for change. Its heroes, often unsung, are those applying the rule of law, and its accompanying instruments, to influence political, social, economic and cultural change over time. They are often risking their own lives, including those of family members and colleagues, and operating under circumstances that impede their own basic freedoms and access to a normal, ordinary life.
Such individuals include Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s attorney general, who in 2015 ordered the arrest on corruption charges of the president - and other cabinet members - who actually appointed her to office. They now linger behind bars and dozens of others have been charged. Judge Sergio Moro of Brazil is on the front lines of the sweeping anti-corruption investigations that have led to the arrests, prosecutions and convictions of large swathes of Brazil’s political and business establishment. This extensive network of corruption operated with impunity for far too long.
Individuals such as Aldana and Moro are becoming national heroes and role models for common citizens throughout the Americas and around the world. Their message is that change is possible through peaceful means, public institutions and the rule of law. They are not just speaking truth to power but delivering justice to power in society.
At a trial where he led his own defense as a young revolutionary, Fidel Castro famously declared “history will absolve me.” However, decades later history is taking a different course. While most of the Americas has largely evolved democratically since the end of the Cold War, with the principal exception of Venezuela, Cuba remains stuck in an autocratic past. The regime’s continuing survival is not a testament to its endurance, but the sad reality that repression still remains an active instrument for retaining power in the Americas - albeit a diminishing one.
Cuba is not immune to change. In fact, change in Cuba is historically inevitable. The larger question - yet to be determined - is how, when and at what continuing cost to the Cuban people, and the broader hemisphere.
Unconditional engagement by foreign governments, particularly those of the Americas, will yield limited dividends, potentially none at all. Some form of reciprocity for engagement, or rapprochement, must be demanded if basic progress is expected in the foreseeable future.