The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Castros are finally gone. The U.S. should end the Cuba embargo and open the gates.

Raúl Castro, the outgoing first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and former president of Cuba, waves goodbye on Monday as the eighth congress of the Cuban Communist Party comes to an end in Havana. (Ariel Ley/ACN/AFP via Getty Images)

All hail: The wicked Castros are finally gone.

With the official retirement on Monday of Raúl Castro as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, the last of the revolutionary brothers has relinquished control of the tiny, redoubtable island-state. The Communist Party remains in place. The president and new party boss, Miguel Díaz-Canel, vows continuation and unity. But the official end of the 62-year rule of the Castro family proffers a glimmer of hope that things could change.

And none too soon. Cuba’s economy, thanks in large measure to the long-standing U.S. embargo, has long been a shambles. But the pandemic has made life in Cuba even more challenging. Ggross domestic product dropped 11 percent last year. Basic necessities, including food, toiletries, cleansers and medicine, are subject to continuing shortages, though widespread hunger was eliminated long ago.

Díaz-Canel, 61, was born a year after the revolution. As a rising leader in the Communist Party, he oversaw some modest free-market reforms. Will Cuba’s direction change with a new party leader? That seems unlikely. Still, the departure of the Castros after more than six decades gives both Washington and Havana a chance to reconsider their failed relationship.

It is revealing that Raúl’s departure received only modest coverage here at home; even 10 years ago, we might have heard about little else. But most people alive today, both in Cuba and elsewhere, were born long after the 1959 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista and put Fidel, the young rebel, in charge. The fatigue-clad eader wasn’t a communist when he traded his rifle for a microphone, but the Soviet Union’s early financial support convinced him of the unifying power of state control.

Fidel’s legacy, continued by brother Raúl with some minor modifications, has meant continued misery for the island’s 11 million people. These days, covid-19 restrictions have exacerbated circumstances that can only be described as dire.

It’s easy to romanticize Cuba. Tourists love the colorful if decaying architecture, the sight of 1950s Fords and Chevys chugging along Havana’s streets, having a drink at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar and visiting his 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, and his Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), now a museum. But only tourist hotels and government offices have air conditioning, assuming reliable electricity.

In contrast to these images is a booming biotechnology industry prompted by the blockade, as well as an exemplary state-run medical system. Not only has Cuba kept covid infections remarkably low, but Cuban researchers are also developing five vaccines, two of which seem promising. Cuba says it plans to export its vaccine for free to South America and Central America.

Meanwhile, every Cuban citizen receives an annual medical checkup, wanted or not, while the state maintains health profiles, categorizing people according to healthy, not-so-healthy, elderly (one in five is over 60) or predisposed to illness because of obesity, diabetes and so on. So, yes, a state-run system focused on prevention can boast enviable health outcomes, but the trade-off is a loss of privacy and freedom, which is no choice at all.

With Raúl stepping aside at 89, now would seem a good time for President Biden to ask Congress to lift the embargo once and for all, allow for expanded tourism and remittances, and reestablish more formal diplomatic relations. That would end the absurdly long standoff between the United States — a superpower, after all — and the beleaguered little nation that lies 90 miles from Key West.

Surely, the big dog can afford to let the little dog eat.

The embargo is an aging farce perpetuated in the spirit of a folie à deux — a shared delusional disorder. Fidel, who reportedly owned many homes, a yacht and a private island where he entertained countless guests, has never shared his countrymen’s fate. Like any run-of-the-mill dictator, he lived a big life at the expense of the oppressed and used the embargo as an excuse for his fundamentally failed policies.

The United States, meanwhile, has clung to the embargo largely out of habit. It has given hard-line Cuban Americans some measure of revenge against the regime that drove the capitalists and landowners out of Cuba, and enabled the United States to complain about the Cuban government’s disregard for basic freedoms. But it has changed nothing.

Two generations post revolution, it is a propitious time to end the madness. Open the gates, flood Cuba with U.S. goods and goodwill, and trust that freedom will speak for herself.

Read more:

Charles Lane: Raúl Castro retires from office — and escapes accountability

Carlos Eire: Raúl Castro relinquishing power won’t bring change to Cuba anytime soon

The Post’s View: A hunger strike in Cuba reveals a deepening crisis

The Post’s View: Cuba’s raid on dissident creatives shows how much the government fears the power of art