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Castro’s Chance to Change

By Alexander R. Konrad

I would love to be able to pick and choose which of my actions bear responsibility—or have the world only acknowledge my better choices. Unfortunately, none of us have that power. World leaders, however, at least possess the ability to influence the globe positively enough to at least minimize the regrettable deeds of yesterday, as we should prepare to observe in the final act of former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s life.

Castro is back in the public eye, and he apparently has just discovered the Internet in his absence. Speaking to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a series of interviews and then Mexico’s La Jornada, Castro has seemingly reinvented himself as an old, ailing man with new, healthy opinions.

The 24-hour news cycle has recycled his views on Israel and Iran, as related by Goldberg, in a sort of media death grip. And it is indeed significant that Castro publicly admonished Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for denying the Holocaust. Fidel appears to defend strongly Israel’s right to exist, while empathizing with the worldview that a legacy of persecution can produce. In so doing, Castro distanced himself from Venezuela’s outspoken President Hugo Chavez, who as a socialist and American detractor has positioned his country with Cuba on many occasions. Unlike Castro, Chavez has sought the spotlight for his opinions while still in office, a policy I deplored in The Crimson last winter.

In his views on a possible showdown between Israel and Iran (I should note that these interviews were inspired by Goldberg’s controversial feature on the subject), Castro has carved out his own position, one based on unique life experience. No one alive today can say he was a leader as critically involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example—and those tense days in 1962 have, at long last, inspired Castro to stand up for global nuclear disarmament.

The reborn Castro, speaking to Goldberg, admitted that he was wrong to advocate the Soviet use of nuclear weapons against America during the crisis. Expect to hear more from Castro in future interviews along the theme of the threat of nuclear weapons and the need for disarmament. Unlike in 1962, the men in charge of the two main nuclear arsenals—President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (whether in his own right or as chief puppet of Vladimir Putin)—seem to also approve of gradual disarmament and signed a new treaty to reduce their nations’ nuclear arsenals in April. Yet even with their support, disarmament remains an abstract, far-off possibility. Any efforts by Castro to raise awareness, or to reach out to states traditionally less aligned with the United States than with, say, Cuba, will be welcome in that fight.

Castro’s legacy as the long-time leader of Cuba cannot be erased by such advocacy, and many of his actions are indefensible. The arrests, rapes, and fear that characterized his regime can never be adequately explained, much less forgiven. Yet when Castro apologized for his regime’s treatment of the island’s gay community, telling La Jornada, “If someone is responsible, it’s me,” he showed that he at least recognizes his personal involvement and error.

Remorse from Castro, following a near-death experience, may seem scant comfort to those who endured the hardships of his rule. Those who reply, as I have read on message boards and in the political blogosphere, that Castro’s admission was “too little, too late,” do so with justification. But they miss the bigger possibility here, that Castro’s about-face on some issues can have a very real and immediate impact on the lives of Cubans and others.

When Castro acknowledges gay rights, or takes the head of Havana’s Jewish community on his trip with Goldberg to see the dolphin show at the Havana aquarium (where the director is a nuclear physicist and the veterinarians include Che Guevara’s daughter), he lays the groundwork for Cuba to move forward. He puts added pressure on Iran, a task that seems of growing importance with each day. Simply put, he puts his imprint on the public discourse in a positive way. People will listen to what Castro has to say.

They will not always believe him, or put credence in his positions. Just look at his claim that Osama bin Laden is a U.S.-planted spy. But he can add value even if we don’t agree with everything that Castro argues. Here’s an extreme example: Muammar al-Gaddafi, of Libya, operates in the realm of the outrageous and even demands random jihads, while introducing ideas worthy of serious consideration, such as a federally united Africa.

Early indications point to Castro’s ratio of good ideas and preposterous ones besting Gaddafi by a great deal, and Castro’s significantly unburdened by his own legacy. The day the leader of the revolution can admit that his revolutionary model no long works in Cuba, the world should notice Castro isn’t following business as usual. Let President Raul Castro try to fix the Cuban economy—his brother, the new, candid Castro, has set his sights on the world.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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