After 50 Years of Castro's Cuba, Will the Cold War End?

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Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro speaks to supporters at the Batista military base Columbia, now known as Ciudad Libertad in January 1959

It's good that the Cuban Revolution's 50th anniversary falls on Jan. 1. That's the day for New Year's resolutions, and it's time for Washington and Havana to make some big ones.

They can start by acknowledging that after 50 years of communist revolution in Cuba and counter-revolution from the U.S., both sides can claim only partial victories. Washington and Miami's Cuban exiles can say they kept the U.S. trade embargo against Havana intact. Yet they failed to dislodge Fidel Castro and his government and instead succeeded in alienating the rest of the hemisphere. Congratulations! The Castro regime can say it stood up to a half-century of yanqui aggression while proving that quality universal education and health care are doable. But the price — a basket-case economy and a bleak human-rights record — overshadowed those achievements. �Felicidades!

So, fittingly, don't expect much of a charged observance on either side of the Straits of Florida this week. It looks unlikely that the ailing, 82-year-old Fidel Castro, who ceded Cuba's presidency to his younger brother Raúl this year, will be fit enough to attend the celebration in Santiago de Cuba. In Miami, exile hard-liners are wrestling with a new Florida International University poll showing that a majority of Cuban-Americans there think the embargo should end. The question now is whether Washington and Havana can smell the cafe cubano, leave their cold-war time warp, enter the 21st century — and cease being an impediment to a hemisphere that's trying to do the same. (See the Top 10 News Stories of 2008.)

Fortunately, the signs are looking better as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's Jan. 20 Inauguration nears. Obama, who has said he's willing to talk with Raúl Castro, is poised to end the Bush Administration's restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. That could (and should) be the first step toward dismantling the ill-conceived, 46-year-old embargo (which Obama surely knows is also the aim of many pro-business Republicans in Washington). Either way, such gestures make it harder for the Castros to rail against gringo imperialism. For his part, Raúl Castro recently told actor Sean Penn in an interview for the Nation magazine that he and Obama "must meet" in a neutral place "and begin to solve our problems."

A big problem, of course, is the scores of jailed dissidents in Cuba and the island's lack of free speech. Raúl Castro said this month he would consider releasing some of those prisoners as a prelude to talks with Obama. He wants U.S. reciprocation, however — like freedom for the Cuban Five. They are Cuban agents who were convicted in Miami in 2001 of espionage but, Havana insists, were in the U.S. only to monitor exile groups that had allegedly aided in bombings of Cuban tourist hotels. A swap release of the five isn't likely. (A U.S. appellate panel did rule that their trial had not been fair, but another panel affirmed their convictions this year.) But Obama could respond by prosecuting Luis Posada Carriles, an exile militant who allegedly took part in the hotel attacks as well as the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which 73 people were killed. FBI evidence links Posada to the crimes, but the Bush Administration has let him remain free in Miami, — inviting charges of a double standard on terrorism.

The point is that both sides have got to learn to give a little. Last year, when TIME put Raúl Castro on its list of the world's 100 most influential people — because he had taken over for Fidel Castro as interim President and looked to be moving Cuba in a more pragmatic direction — the magazine got scorn from U.S. officials. This year, when TIME put Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez on the list — for the impact she's had on political blogging around the world — Cuban officials complained in turn. They're entitled to their opinion, but both camps' responses point out how tiresome U.S.-Cuban intolerance has gotten. If Washington and Miami are as serious as they claim about democratizing Cuba, they'll find more creative ways than a globally condemned embargo to engage the island. If Raúl Castro and the aging generals around him are as serious as they say about working to end the embargo and revive Cuba's moribund economy, they'll loosen the island's political leash. (See pictures of music in Cuba.)

If all parties don't act soon, they risk making the same hemispheric muddle of the first half of the 21st century that they made of the last half of the 20th. And they could also spend this century on the hemisphere's sidelines. The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko just visited Havana for five days — the first Russian warship to dock there since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 — and it symbolized to many how low U.S. influence has sunk in the Caribbean. Cuba, meanwhile, was invited this month to a regional summit in Brazil from which the U.S. was excluded — a reminder that Latin Americans still see U.S. treatment of Cuba as a reflection of how the U.S. treats them.

But at the same time, Raúl Castro had to notice that his Brazilian host, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who is the head of Brazil's Workers Party and supposedly the Castros' leftist soulmate — is perhaps Latin America's most acclaimed capitalist leader. Capitalism's excesses get deservedly excoriated for causing today's global catastrophe. But even Venezuela, which helps prop up Cuba's economy with cut-rate oil, has made it clear in recent elections that it's not the socialist hotbed that its left-wing President Hugo Chávez dreams of. Yes, the hypocritical drill among Latin leaders is that they censure Washington publicly but Havana privately. Still, most of them believe Cuba is as out of step with the rest of the Americas as the U.S. is.

Which isn't to say that the Cuban revolution doesn't deserve its due. It overthrew one of Latin America's most putrid dictators, championed the poor (still a rare thing to do in Latin America) and showed the U.S. that its worst Monroe Doctrine impulses (not to mention the Mafia that was overrunning Cuba then) could be thwarted. People buy Che Guevara T shirts for more than just the lefty chic. The Miami exiles (many of whom backed Fidel Castro before he went communist) deserve their props too, despite the Elian Gonzalez mess. Most were not corrupt oligarchs and gusanos (worms, as Fidel Castro called them) but industrious working- or middle-class men and women who helped build modern Miami. In December, the Miami Herald unveiled an online database that gives the exiles an Ellis Island–style history of their arrivals in the U.S.

No one should begrudge respect for Cubans on either side of the straits — not those who died in prisons fighting Fulgencio Batista nor those who died on rafts escaping Fidel Castro. But after 50 years, it's time to stop reliving the Bay of Pigs.

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