The death of Fidel Castro comes at a critical turning point in U.S. relations with Cuba, and the stakes for getting it right are particularly high in Florida. While Castro had largely been absent from the international stage for a decade before his death Friday at the age of 90, he was a larger-than-life figure who polarized attitudes on both sides and who continues to shape the dynamics of this relationship. His passing, and the uncertainty over the course President-elect Donald Trump will pursue on taking office in January, make it important for pragmatic people across the political aisle to underscore the advantages to the nation and Florida of remaining engaged.
Castro had been in declining health for years, but even after ceding presidential powers to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2006, he remained the driving political figure of modern Cuba and the chief stumbling block in the United States to normalizing relations. Though Raúl Castro has struck out on his own — by working with the Obama administration to re-establish ties and by allowing small-scale economic reforms to address the discontent from food shortages and low wages — Fidel's death will still mark a hugely emotional passing and a moment for the island to reflect on its future.
President Barack Obama took a series of steps over the years to liberalize trade and travel with Cuba, making it easier, cheaper and more convenient for Cuban-Americans — many of them in the Tampa Bay area — to reconnect with family and help loved ones on the island. Obama clearly hoped a Hillary Clinton victory would have burnished his legacy, especially given Congress' refusal to end the half-century-old trade embargo outright. Trump said during the campaign he would re-examine the diplomatic deal between the two countries in 2014 that restored diplomatic relations. He repeated that vow in a tweet Monday. But Trump has not said he would repeal Obama's executive actions. That may offer a narrow window of hope, but it at least provides an opening for Cuban-Americans, political leaders and the business community to make the case for continuing to build relations.
The Castros and their chosen successors have built an opaque political system that continues to stifle free speech, assembly and economic opportunity. There was never any delusion within the Obama administration or by its supporters that by liberalizing some trade and travel, Havana would open its political process overnight. But these confidence-building steps are vital after a half-century of enmity. The United States would be sending the wrong message now — in the wake of its own political transition — to reverse course and insist that Cuba act unilaterally to improve relations. That's not how foreign policy works. And it only plays into the Castro narrative that the island finally has a chance to leave behind.
In purely practical terms, this turnaround has benefited both nations, and few more than people in Florida and Tampa Bay, who have strong family ties to Cuba. Since charter flights resumed in 2011, more than 240,000 passengers have flown from Tampa International Airport to Cuba. On Monday, the first regularly scheduled flight in more than a half-century left Miami bound for Havana. Area political and business leaders have visited the island, hoping to build stronger trade and educational ties. The Tampa Bay Rays joined Obama's visit to Cuba in March. And with a stronger working relationship, the two countries can cooperate on a host of national security and economic concerns — controlling the borders, fighting the drug trade, working to minimize and respond to oil spills and other maritime disasters. This is what neighbors 90 miles apart should do.
Trump's national security team is not fully in place. The new president should keep an open mind and his eye on the future. Two Floridians in Congress, Sen. Bill Nelson and Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, hit the right notes over the weekend by calling for Trump to remain engaged. As Fidel Castro's passing shows, one leader — however strong — is not the sum of a nation's history.