Fidel Castro, the revolutionary Cuban leader who led his country toward communism and the world toward the brink of nuclear war, died last Friday at 90 years old. Upon the news of his death, we witnessed just how divisive a figure he truly was. While many Cubans rejoiced at the news, others mourned the loss of their former leader. Across the Caribbean, Castro’s death amplifies the question of President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to normalizing relations between our two countries. Following five decades of a failed isolationist policy toward Cuba, it would be a grave mistake for Trump to roll back the progress President Barack Obama has made in the U.S.-Cuban relationship over the past two years.

When Castro catapulted to power on Jan. 8, 1959, creating the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere, he quickly took control of nearly all aspects of Cuban life. Castro ruled with a heavy, repressive and often brutal hand, while at the same time providing the country with improved public services. He severely restricted political and economic freedoms in Cuba, including banning opposition newspapers, prohibiting elections and ordering political opponents and dissenters to be jailed and sometimes killed. After Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned businesses on the island in 1960, the United States ceased diplomatic relations with the country (which President Obama reinstated last year) and imposed a trade embargo on Cuba that still remains today. However, his legacy often evokes a mixture of feelings as Castro also provided the country with improved health care and education, eliminated legal discrimination and increased availability of electricity in the countryside.

It is true that many aspects of Fidel Castro’s repressive rule remain today under his brother Raúl’s leadership. In fact, between January and October of this year, more than 9,000 political prisoners were detained — four times as many than in 2010. However, reversing the progress made in U.S.-Cuban relations will likely worsen the issue, not improve the prospects of the Cuban people. As Elizardo Sánchez, the founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, argues, “The personal contact that comes from all the travel (from the United States) has a huge impact in terms of fighting propaganda … In a closed society, the door can only be opened a bit at a time. It’s going very slowly, but it’s happening.” While there is certainly room for improvement, we cannot reasonably expect Cuban society — which has been closed for more than 50 years — to completely open overnight. If we maintain and improve our relationship with Cuba, we can arm the Cuban people with knowledge and empower them to fight for their own rights in a way they may not have had the opportunity to before.  

But under the Trump administration, this may prove to be a difficult task. Trump posted a tweet on Monday morning threatening to terminate recently renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole.” While I am choosing to believe that President-elect Trump has the best interests of both the Cuban and American people at heart, I fully oppose his threat to reverse the headway made in normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations. Our past strategy of harsh restrictions and trade embargoes was simply unsuccessful. The Castros remained in power despite U.S. actions while the Cuban people suffered immensely from deteriorating economic conditions. Human rights were still violated, political prisoners were still detained and the Cuban people were still unable to provide for themselves financially. If history means anything, there will be no “better deal” in Cuba’s future. I agree that the United States absolutely should not support a repressive government. However, I also believe it is against our American values to abandon the Cuban people. With the opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries, we allow an opportunity to work together, to repair our differences and to help the Cuban government better provide for its citizens.

Since President Obama reinstated relations with Cuba, millions of dollars have been spent on business deals, especially in the tourism industry. As recently as Monday, the United States began flying direct commercial flights bringing American tourists and Cuban-Americans to the island. As the economic situation on the island improves with American investments, it is only logical to assume that the Cuban people may begin fighting for increased political freedoms now that their first worry no longer has to do with whether or not they will be able to feed their family for the week. Additionally, better relations benefit not only the Cuban economy, but also American businesses looking for new ventures in which to invest. Reversing this progress will produce a severe blow to the industries in Cuba that have seen business rise considerably in the past couple of years.

To add insult to injury, the Cuban government has historically always been suspicious of American intentions. President-elect Trump’s hostile position will add fuel to a fire that has only recently dimmed to a smolder. Not only is Trump’s ultimatum seen as an attack on the economic improvements that have been made, but also as a direct assault on Cuba’s sovereignty. With an increasingly dangerous and uncertain global landscape, the United States simply cannot afford to make more enemies.

While we will not be able to solve all of Cuba’s problems, severing ties has proven totally ineffective. After more than 50 years of a failed strategy, it is time to employ a new policy. Continuing the progress we have already made gives us a greater chance of improving the lives of a people that have suffered long enough.

Melissa Strauss can be reached at melstrau@umich.edu.

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