Over the past week, people around the world have been struggling to find the right words to address Fidel Castro’s passing. Whether lining the streets of Miami or Havana, friends, families, and neighbors have gathered together to remember a man that turned a small island 90 miles off the coast of Florida into one of the flash points of foreign policy for the last half a century.
Fidel Castro made the island a focal point of the Cold War, brought our planet to the brink of nuclear war, supported terrorist organizations, and harbored fugitives escaping justice such as one of America’s most wanted, Joanne Chesimard. Some of these events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, have ended up in history books as lessons from the past but other transgressions, such as Cuba’s continued harboring of fugitives, are still a reality.
While many are having mixed emotions about this larger than life persona, let us not forget for one-second the awful and undeniable truth: Fidel Castro defiled democracy, oppressed innocent people, and imprisoned an entire nation with his totalitarian tactics. From the moment he seized power, Castro began a process of indoctrinating young people, cutting the island off from international exports, parading those who dared to speak out against him in front of firing squads, and choking the island’s ability to access uncensored information.
Thousands died directly at the hands of Castro’s evil regime and thousands more perished taking the perilous journey perched upon makeshift rafts hoping to drift close enough to Miami to be scooped up by their neighbors to the North. Forced labor, unlawful imprisonments, and executions became the norm for people left on the island.
The Cuban people had two options under Fidel Castro: keep their heads down and try to get by with their waning food rations and low-paying jobs, or speak out against their oppressors and pay the ultimate consequence. Both exuded bravery in their own right, the humble family struggling and trying its best to keep their families alive and find creative new ways to make ends meet hoping their children would have a better life, and the outspoken dissidents that suffered weekly beatings and detentions trying to bring freedom to the country they call home.
Fidel Castro’s death should mark a turning point in Cuba’s destiny. However, the legacy of Castro is not only of the abuses he committed while in power, but the system he left in place allowing his tyrannical family to continue ruling over the Cuban people with an iron fist. With Fidel gone, Raul and his family are still in place to carry out his elder brother’s vision and have shown no signs of loosening his grip.
Just days after President Obama’s announcement to normalize relations with the island, Raul dispelled any misgivings and declared that the regime will not abandon its communist path, let alone loosen its stranglehold over the Cuban people. In fact, since the announcement was made, detentions have spiked and the weekly beatings of groups such as the Ladies in White, innocent women protesting the politically motivated imprisonment of their husbands, continue without fail. The Castro regime continues to rule the island absolutely and denies the Cuban people the basic freedoms they yearn for.
Even though a Castro is still in charge, Fidel’s passing can serve as a new dawn for the Cuban people. But, this can only happen if the international community seizes this moment and insists that the Cuban people deserve basics freedoms. We must insist that all political prisoners are freed and that basic human rights are respected. The Cuban people deserve to live in a society where they have the freedom to access information, to organize, to worship, and to speak their truths without fear of being thrown into the gulags.
When I was only 11 years old, my parents made the courageous decision to leave the island to protect my family from Castro’s communism. It is thanks to their sacrifice that I was able to grow up in the United States of America, where I enjoyed the basic freedoms and human rights that the Cuban people both deserve and desire. It is time to honor the sacrifices made by countless families who continue fighting tirelessly to shed light on an island that has been shrouded in darkness for far too long.
Rep. Sires represents New Jersey's 8th District and is the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.