Fidel Castro’s decision to officially relinquish his elected post as president of Cuba once again defied the conventional, but stagnant “wisdom” of U.S. pundits and many Liberal, Right, and Left ideologues and politicians alike.

Dogmatic allegiance to anti-Communist Cold War canards accounts for his Miami-based critics, the U.S. government, and major news outlets being uninformed, as usual, about what’s happening in the socialist republic of Cuba. And unreflective, often dogmatic, ideological precepts have left many supporters of the Cuban revolution out of touch with the revolution’s self-diagnosed ailments and prescriptions.

Widespread debates and frank recommendations have emerged within the Cuban government and Cuban society over the past year since Fidel’s originally temporary successor, now newly elected Cuban President, Raul Castro, called for more critical reflection and recommendations to improve the quality of government and the quality of life in the not-so-vibrant Cuban revolution.

Changes among political representatives elected by local communities, open verbal and written criticisms about past errors in governance, over-reliance on the Soviet Communist experience, criticism of transportation woes, food shortages, low salaries, racial discrimination, homophobia, and even criticism of aspects of the vaunted health care system are easily found among the 60-plus on-line magazines, parastatal publications, and official speeches from leading government and Communist Party officials inside Cuba.

New Atmosphere

Shortly after assuming the post as acting president, Raul Castro told a group of students that they should be “fearless” in speaking up. And to his compatriots in governance, he asserted: “the person who plays the role of director needs to know how to listen and create the atmosphere so that people can express themselves with total freedom.”

How to unleash the gains of the revolution, and how to give the highly educated Cuban people greater opportunities is a recurring question throughout this new period of debate and policy recommendations.

Younger Cubans, including Communist Party members, avidly advocate for a modernization of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, in the discourse between Cuban citizens and Cuban political officials you see such terms as “participatory democracy” and public criticism of the lack of opportunity for the well-educated citizenry to improve their lives and advance the principles and the goals of the revolution. To the surprise many, and perhaps to the dismay of hard-line anti-Castro Cuban Americans and many mainstream Republicans and Democrats, Cubans — yes Cubans inside Cuba — have recently employed the expression “transition” to mark the depth and breadth of their desire and intent to renovate their socialist experiment, which many there openly describe as outdated, with contemporary needs and possibilities.

Fidel Revered

Of course there are Cubans who disapprove of the revolution. But they are by all accounts a very small percentage of the population and they should not be lumped in with those citizens who disapprove of how the revolution has been managed and its deficiencies, but not with its goals.

Where then does or should this Cuban transition lead the U.S. public and our government? First, we must face reality and accept the fact that despite the dislike to hatred that some Americans feel toward Fidel Castro, he is roundly applauded, even idealized, in Cuba and in many quarters of the world. He is revered, and not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, for the humanistic goals and social accomplishments achieved under his nearly half-century of leadership as Commander and Chief of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban people have demonstrated in the face of persistent ideological, military, and terrorist threats from the United States that they and no other entity will determine the fate of their country and their democracy.

So, for all those who profess such deep concern for the Cuban people, now is another moment in history to honestly step forth and engage Cubans and their government on the terms they negotiate inside their own country. To do otherwise would be to remain mired in a bellicose anti-democratic and imperial policy against the Cuban government and objectively against the Cuban people, a policy increasingly rejected throughout the Hemisphere and around the world.

Opportunity for Cuba-U.S. Relations

Latin American and the Caribbean nations have made a clear turn to engage Cuba and to reject the aggressive posture and policies of the United States. Spain is working closely with the Cuban government and the United Nations on human rights issues, and the Cuban government is responding to the mutually respectful approach. Echoing public statements repeated by Raul Castro, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director of North American affairs says: “Cuba is ready and willing to sit down at any table with the U.S. government to discuss every difference we have, without preconditions.”

Can Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain make a transition in U.S. policy and join the rest of the world in collegial debate and compromise with the Cuban people and the Cuban government? We, the people of the United States, need to take advantage of this moment of change and insist that our government join the sweeping hemispheric tide towards a new era in relations with Cuba.

James Early, the Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a member of the board of trustees of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also on the board of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange project and spent 10 days in Cuba earlier this year.

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