Associated Press
Julio De-Castro Toirac, right, shows his photo album during his years in the U.S. Army as his brother Jose Ignacio Castro Toirac, left, looks on in Coral Gables, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. Unbeknownst to one another, Julio and Jose Castro had both enlisted in the military, the older brother with the United States, the younger with Cuba. As the U.S. and the Soviets inched closer to catastrophe 50 years ago this week, one brother stood in the trenches in Cuba while the other awaited orders in Miami.

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis dominated public attention, Cuba once again is in the news. That is both interesting and distressing, given that the principle actor on the Cuban side is the same.

Cuba is in the news because of rumors that Fidel Castro is ill, perhaps in a vegetative state after a stroke, and may soon die. Those reports appear to have little substance, having originated with Dr. Jose Rafael Marquina, the same man who earlier this year said Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was in the "last days" and would not live until November. Chavez recently won re-election and appeared to be strong in public appearances.

But the health of the 86-year-old Castro has been declining for years. He stepped down as Cuba's leader four years ago, turning the reins over to his brother, Raul. Fidel undoubtedly remains influential in the operations of the island nation, but he won't live forever. Rumors that Fidel might be near death set off a wave of discussions on social media and even caused the mayor of Miami to say his city needed to update its contingency plans for handling the huge demonstrations among Cuban ex-patriots that are expected upon the dictator's demise.

Fifty years later, Fidel Castro remains a force and a source of vexation to his much larger neighbor 90 miles away. He has survived many U.S. presidents and maintained a firm grip on power. But this is an indictment rather than a measure of accomplishment.

American presidents have come and gone because this country empowers the people to choose its leaders and set its course. The Castro brothers have tightly controlled Cuba's politics and economy, and the results have been disastrous. The 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation, ranks Cuba 177th in the world in terms of economic freedom, just ahead of Zimbabwe.

"The foundations of economic freedom are poorly laid and ill defended," the report said. "The absence of an independent and fair judiciary weakens the rule of law, and widespread corruption affects most transactions. No courts are free of political interference, and private property is strictly regulated."

Cuba relies on help from Venezuela and a mostly captive labor force to keep going. Significantly, many of its people still drive cars from 50 or more years ago, kept going through mechanical ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Raul Castro recently announced that travel restrictions will relax, beginning in January. In theory, Cubans will have a much easier time leaving the island for visits abroad, and foreigners will have an easier time visiting Cuba, even for an extended stay. The island clearly is desperate for foreign investment, and it is a shame that even this significant step toward freedom has been so long in coming.

The United States may not have chosen the best path by imposing a strict economic embargo on Cuba. Certainly, that did not keep the Castro brothers from ruling the nation for the last half-century. But the relative values of the political systems in the United States and Cuba should by now be readily apparent to the world.

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Likewise, the value of the tough leadership President John F. Kennedy displayed 50 years ago should be apparent. When the United States discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy stared down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with a naval blockade, eventually offering Khrushchev a face-saving way out by making minor concessions on missiles in Turkey. That tough approach was made possible by military superiority, and it left a lasting impression. Cuba never again has posed a military threat to the United States.

A half-century later, that example ought to inform how the U.S. continues to deal with its adversaries.