Fidel Castro resigned his office today. The man who haunted my adolescence has left, not with a bang (a consummation for which many have wished) but with a whimper. I remember the day in October, 1962, when I went off to school, not knowing when I got home -- and I viewed my arrival there as problematic -- if the world would be engulfed in a nuclear war. As a student who had recently entered high school, I sat riveted when, over the intercom, our principal piped in a radio report, updating us on the confrontation between American and Russian ships off the coast of Cuba.
I breathed a sigh of relief when it appeared that the Russians had blinked. It was only years later that I discovered the Kennedy brothers and Nikita Khrushchev had quietly brokered a back channel deal by which Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba if President Kennedy removed American missiles from Turkey. Amid the hysteria of the Cold War, reason -- something which appeared to be in short supply -- prevailed. It is worth remembering that Kennedy's military advisers and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson were advocating an invasion of Cuba.
Even though rational and pragmatic men avoided Armageddon, the Kennedys remained obsessed with Castro. They renewed their single-minded attempts to eliminate him. The most Machiavellian of their efforts -- and the lowest point in the Kennedy administration -- was their plot to enlist the mob's help in Castro's assassination. As the recent release of C.I.A. files confirms, Robert Kennedy arranged a hit on Castro, orchestrated by Johnny Rozelli and Sam Giancana, Al Capone's successor in the Chicago mob. It was no profile in courage -- either for the Attorney General, who had declared war on organized crime, or for the president, who was sleeping with Giancana's mistress.
Castro was no innocent victim. He wielded power ruthlessly and tolerated no dissent. He would not allow opponents to write, as he did in 1952 -- in his effort to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, "But my voice will not be stifled -- it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it."
And, not content to liberate Cuba from Batista's tyranny, Castro sought -- through his alliance with Che Gueverra -- to export his revolution to Central America, South America and Africa. But, on the positive side of the ledger, he provided all his citizens with universal education -- from kindergarten through university -- and universal health care. Those who seek to understand Castro's longevity should begin with those two policies.
In the final analysis, however, what Castro cared most about was the acquisition and maintenance of power. And it has been that overarching quest that has tainted whatever good he has done. There are those who think that, with Castro's departure, the road to democracy is inevitable. George W. Bush greeted Castro's resignation by declaring, "Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections -- and I mean free and fair -- not those kind of staged elections which the Castro brothers foist off as true democracy."
Mr. Bush, whose attempt to export democracy to the Middle East has been about as successful as Castro's attempt to export Communism to Central America, would be wise to let the Cubans work out their own political destiny. It would be a new twist on the Monroe Doctrine. For, as today proves, if you are patient enough to wait out your opponents, you may wind up in a much better place than where war and assassination leaves you.