Castro’s Change of Heart: The Implications for Cuba, Venezuela, and The United States

After four years of silence induced by grave physical illness, punctuated only by occasional newspaper commentaries, Fidel Castro has regained his voice. To the surprise of many, he is using it to make some startling comments on the escalating conflict between Iran and the western world. In one of his most recent statements on the subject, expressed in an exclusive interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, Castro surprised friends and foes alike by excoriating Iran’s Ahmadinejad for intensifying conflict in the Middle East by encouraging anti-Semitism in Iran. Specifically, Castro criticized Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, declaring to Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”

Castro has come out since publication of Goldberg’s piece to explain that the reporter missed the crucial irony in his statement that was originally heralded as a shocking admission that the Cuban economic model was failing. Instead, Castro explained that he had meant “exactly the opposite,” that the US capitalist model could no longer be seen as a model for the U.S., much less for Cuba. Fidel has made no such clarification or retraction regarding his words for Ahmadinejad, however. In this case, at least, it seems that Goldberg got Castro’s message right the first time.

Fidel’s choice of messenger—American-Israeli reporter Goldberg, who has historically shown affinity for neo-conservative viewpoints, —seems, at first, an odd one, given Castro’s well-documented history as an outspoken critic of both Israel and, of course, the United States. Castro’s decision to entrust Goldberg with this stern warning to Ahmadinejad is merely the first of many enigmas that emerge from this far-reaching interview. Indeed, the shockwaves sent out from Fidel’s statement will be felt not only in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, but also closer to home in Venezuela, where it threatens to strain Castro’s long-standing relationship with President Hugo Chávez. Most important, however, are the potential ramifications of Castro’s statement here in the United States.

Fidel’s message represents a golden opportunity for the Obama administration to recognize Cuba’s increasing trend toward liberalization and normalize relations with Havana. Cuba’s apparent willingness to abandon old dogmas and to strive for areas of common interest and shared valued with the U.S. could be a first step to remedying the estrangement and polarization between the two countries. Whether or not the United States chooses to catch this most recent wave and ride it, however, is up to the Obama administration, which has heretofore remained regretfully timid with respect to Cuba, despite repeated encouraging signs that Cuban leadership has begun to reconsider the island nation’s long-standing state of political and economic isolation.

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