(CNN) — The death of Fidel Castro, the long-ruling strongman of the Cuban Revolution and nemesis of many US presidents, brings to a close one of the most polarizing periods of the 20th century. Beloved and cherished by many in Cuba and around the world, hated by many more who fled the Island or simply endured his repressive and intolerant rule in silence or from behind bars, Castro became a larger than life figure in the context of the Cold War.
The leader of a small ragtag team of militias, Castro managed to inspire followers among Cuba’s poor and downtrodden at a time when Havana had become the jewel of the Caribbean and the playground of the world’s rich and famous. His followers’ fervent belief in the justice of their cause and their cunning on the battlefield proved no match for the Cuban political and economic elite of the day who were corrupt and repressive.
But what may have been a local conflict soon became a surrogate for the global struggle between East and West, capitalism and communism, with the tiny sliver of an island perched under Uncle Sam’s nose, and its bombastic leader, the symbol of that struggle.
Symbolism, in the end, was what gave Cuba its importance on the international stage. The Soviet Union saw it as the perfect stage to threaten the United States and placed nuclear missiles on the island less than 100 miles from the US mainland and minutes from major US cities. Once the crisis was defused, Cuba itself never represented any national security threat to the United States. Yet its ties to other repressive and terrorist regimes, its support of leftist guerrilla movements, and Castrol’s willingness to speak out against what he saw as the excesses of US-led global imperialism and capitalism, made him a hero to those across Latin America who were facing right-wing military regimes and battling what became known as “savage capitalism.”
And in the end, Castro’s death is also important for mostly symbolic reasons. He long ago orchestrated the transfer of power to his brother Raul Castro, the former head of the armed forces. Fidel continued to play the role of ideological conscience to the revolution, periodically publishing missives on important issues to him in the state-run media, but he was removed from the daily operations of the government and had no apparent role in the recent re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States. Some even speculate he opposed it, and he offered cautionary words to the Cuban people in more recent opinion pieces.
His death, as in life, will prompt wildly differing opinions. But the reality is that he had become a historic figure already. The Cuban government had moved on, and a new course was set with the opening of relations with the United States in 2015 and 2016. Whether this opening will produce a Cuba with less poverty and repression, and more economic opportunity for its people is still open to question, but Fidel Castro’s death does not represent a new opportunity to unravel the revolution. Those changes will play out over the coming years based on decisions already taken by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro.
Ultimately, though, probably the most significant development related to US-Cuban relations is the election of Donald Trump as the next president. Trump will need to decide whether he continues down the path of greater engagement that has already begun to change Cuba, or seeks a radical reversal of course to re-establish a policy that had failed for more than 50 years to bring an end to the Castro regime.
Ironically, a reversal in policy on the part of the United States would bring back the isolationism and confrontation that Fidel Castro and several US presidents so carefully tended and nurtured for decades. Let’s hope that Castro’s death and Trump’s election aren’t cause for a return to the past but an opportunity to reflect on the kind of future that is possible for Cuba and US-Cuban relations.