Is Fidel Castro getting introspective in his old age, pondering the road not taken and all of the might-have-been moments had he not spent a half-century presiding over a "worker's paradise" that can barely feed its people or keep the electricity on?

Is Fidel Castro getting introspective in his old age, pondering the road not taken and all of the might-have-been moments had he not spent a half-century presiding over a "worker's paradise" that can barely feed its people or keep the electricity on?


It sure seemed like it from the lengthy interview he gave to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic earlier this month, in which he expressed regret over the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly his decision to urge Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to nuke the U.S. - "Knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all." Obviously that speaks volumes about Castro - none of it good - but perhaps even more startling was the comment in which Cuba's former president seemed to turn his back on communism: "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."


Goldberg describes being flabbergasted, calling it - after the old "Saturday Night Live" character - "the mother of all Emily Litella moments." It certainly sounds as if Castro at long last realized the ideas upon which he'd based a nation were wrong and was left sheepishly saying, "Oops ... never mind!"


Of course, after the American news media picked up his quote, Castro quickly claimed he was misunderstood - by both the reporter and the leading Latin America scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig, who was in the room. He concedes to having said it. Still, he claims, they should have known that "the reality is that my response means exactly the opposite ... the capitalist system now doesn't work either for the United States or the world."


"Oops ... never mind!" indeed.


Whatever Castro's excuse, his slip of the tongue still captured the reality of Cuba today: It's a failure. Castro's brother and successor, Raul, has effectively said as much, and without taking it back.


Cuba is changing, if slowly. Just days after Fidel Castro's comments were released, the powers that be in Havana announced that the government payroll was too bloated, so they'd be firing 500,000 workers. Those half million will be allowed to get jobs in the small but growing private sector, including opening businesses of their own. That's much more than a tentative step toward embracing a free-market economy; it doubles the size of the private sector there.


For too long the Cuban government has used the U.S. embargo as an excuse for the ongoing deprivation its citizens endure. Not only did this provide their autocratic government with a convenient whipping boy - don't blame us, blame the Americans! - it also permitted their leaders to retain a stranglehold over the island by overseeing state-run industries in nearly every economic sector and being the only source most Cubans could turn to for food, clothing and shelter.


In any case, nearly 50 years of trade restrictions haven't achieved the desired result - the toppling of the Castro brothers. The only thing they've accomplished is to take America out of the game as Cuba began accepting foreign investment from elsewhere, mainly from the EU and Latin American countries such as Brazil. That's troubling, certainly for Midwest farmers with grain and Caterpillar with heavy equipment to sell to Cubans. A majority of the Cuban-American community, which long championed a hard line against the regime, even recognize that now and oppose the embargo.


So what would it take for Congress to finally acknowledge that the Cuban trade embargo "doesn't even work for us anymore," and then back it up with a vote to end it?


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.