I remember the excitement I felt in 1975 when Madison Mayor Paul Soglin returned from his visit to Cuba, the first by an elected American official since the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.
Soglin's trip provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with Cuba, which my parents fled in 1960 when I was 13 years old. I returned for the first time in 1978. I came away deeply impressed with the revolution's efforts to educate the Cuban masses, an effort that continues to this day.
Cuba 's achievements in health care and education are legendary and remain the main pillars of its society. To acknowledge this isn't to ignore that exiles like my own family still bemoan their losses, or that Cuba's communist system has created huge hardships.
But Americans also need to understand that many of Cuba's negatives today can be directly attributed to its historical adversarial relationship with the United States. These problems long predate the rise of Fidel Castro.
As a political science student in Oklahoma, I took a keen interest in the history of U.S.-Cuban relations. Few Americans realize that since the administration of Thomas Jefferson, Cuba has been coveted as a U.S. possession.
John Quincy Adams even wrote that Cuba would naturally fall in our hands once it separated from Spain, a concept that became known as the "ripe-fruit policy," because it likened Cuba to an apple falling from its tree.
Still, during Cuba's wars for independence from Spain, the United States refused to support the Cuban patriots. One after another, the great leaders of those insurrections fell while American presidents ignored their pleas for assistance.
One wonders what the history of our countries might have been had Presidents Grant or Cleveland come to the aid of the Cuban revolutionaries, much in the same way that France helped our founding fathers.
With the explosion of the USS Maine at Havana harbor in 1898, the United States finally had the pretext it needed to intervene in Cuba and help boot the Spaniards out. Our intervention was followed by our decades-long domination of Cuba's economic, cultural and political institutions.
We need to keep this checkered history in mind as we ponder what may happen now that Fidel Castro has retired as president of Cuba. Arguably, there has been no larger U.S. foreign policy failure than our mishandling of Castro's Cuba over the past 50 years.
The reason is quite simple: In our desire to make Cuba "ours," we have always ignored the wishes of the Cuban people.
This week a new government took power in Havana. The Bush administration has chosen to regard it as "Castro-lite" and refuses to engage it. Three leading presidential contenders continue to cautiously condition an opening to Cuba rather than seize the opportunity for change. To his credit, Barack Obama is willing to regard normalization of relations as a worthwhile goal.
What should the United States do now? For starters, it should immediately remove Cuba from the list of pariah nations that sponsor terrorism. This designation, a leftover from the Reagan administration, is without evidence and purely political in its intent to isolate Cuba.
Next, all travel restrictions should be eliminated. The charge that money spent by visitors goes into Castro's pockets is ludicrous; spending by Americans would boost Cuba's overall economy and enhance cultural and intellectual dialogue between the two countries.
Most important, the United States has to stop placing conditions on the exercise of Cuban law. It is after all the United States that invaded Cuba, attempted to kill its leaders, poisoned its agriculture and embargoed the island nation for 46 years.
Besides, the Cubans will never accept conditions that injure their sovereignty, so why do we persist?
Since 1994, Madison's sister-city relationship with Camagüey, Cuba's third-largest city, has seen nearly 1,000 Wisconsinites visiting our neighbor island. These visits have been guided by mutual respect and produced many friendships.
Cubans love Americans and vice versa. If we could only get over our obsession with Fidel Castro and engage the other 12 million Cubans, we might be surprised at how quickly our nations would become friends again.
In the end, Fidel Castro has orchestrated his own succession right under the nose of Uncle Sam. He has triumphed over all the odds without giving up his convictions.
It is a tenet of American tradition to respect people who stand up for their beliefs. It seems appropriate now to mark this changing of the guard in Cuba with a corresponding change in our policy.
CITIZEN IS A COLUMN FOR ISTHMUS READERS. RICARDO GONZALEZ, A FORMER MADISON ALDERMAN, IS PRESIDENT OF THE MADISON-CAMAGEY SISTER CITY ASSOCIATION AND PAST PRESIDENT OF THE CUBAN COMMITTEE FOR DEMOCRACY.