ATLANTA -- Fidel Castro has had a powerful ally in his half-century of brutal rule: the U.S. government. The antiquated U.S. policy of complete isolation has done more to help Mr. Castro maintain his ruthless tyranny than any of his police-state tactics - brutally quashing dissent, ruining (or murdering) potential rivals, and occasionally allowing criminals and troublemakers to flee.
Mr. Castro blamed the U.S. embargo for every misery visited upon Cuban citizens, from fuel shortages to food rationing to dwindling medical supplies. In the 1990s, after subsidies from the old Soviet Union dried up and Cubans began to experience malnutrition, Mr. Castro blamed "imperialist forces" to the north.
When his experiment with limited foreign investment and entrepreneurship began to produce slight wealth discrepancies (tourism workers had access to dollars), Mr. Castro blamed U.S.-style capitalism. When old American cars and refrigerators finally began to break down irreversibly after decades of ingenious repair, he blamed a U.S. policy that blocked spare parts.
The embargo was a policy ready-made for demagogues - in Washington and Havana. It gave Mr. Castro an excuse for every political failing, every repressive policy, every economic disaster. And it gave American presidents a chance to grandstand against tyranny in a small island nation that could not push back.
President Bush pushed an illogical policy to its foolish extreme. He clamped down on cultural exchanges, cut back on remittances and limited the trips that Cuban emigres could make to visit relatives still on the island. If Mr. Bush aimed at making life harder for Mr. Castro, he didn't succeed. The policy did make it harder for churches to dispense medical supplies, for colleges and universities to spread democratic ideals, and for Cuban exiles to extol the virtues of capitalism by handing over dollars to their relatives.
Last week, the ailing 81-year-old Mr. Castro, who has reportedly been bedridden for weeks, announced that he was yielding the reins of power.
It's unlikely that Mr. Castro's successor will steer toward Jeffersonian democracy. Nevertheless, the change gives Congress and the White House a perfect rationale to announce a change in policy. If engagement is the preferred course with other nations hostile to democracy - China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind - why wouldn't it work with Cuba? Why is it that Americans can travel freely to Pakistan or Iran or Zimbabwe, but not Cuba?
Indeed, Cuba is already more fertile ground for American-style democratic institutions than, say, Iraq. It is not riven by feuding sects or ethnic groups. While color-consciousness remains a social force, it is not oppressive. (Before Mr. Castro's revolution, Cubans of African heritage were the victims of rank discrimination.) These days, dark-skinned Cubans go to medical school, teach at universities and occupy significant government posts.
The island is also a good candidate for redevelopment. A genuine success of Mr. Castro's revolution was broad literacy. Unlike many poor nations, Cuba boasts a population that is reasonably well-educated. The country takes justifiable pride in a large corps of physicians and a capable community of scientists. With that infrastructure, Western companies would find no shortage of workers.
And Cubans already have an affinity for American culture - baseball and popular music, movies and television. Among the most popular items smuggled into the country are CDs and DVDs. Though Mr. Castro tried hard to keep the country closed down, he enjoyed only limited success.
And the success Mr. Castro did enjoy came with the assistance of an anachronistic American policy. It's past time to change it.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.