Cuba's President Raul Castro participates in the closure session of...

Cuba's President Raul Castro participates in the closure session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba. (Feb. 24, 2012) Credit: AP

Cuban President Raul Castro made news by announcing on Feb. 24 that he will retire in 2018. His older brother, Fidel, stepped down in 2008, after turning 85.

Reflecting the iron control the regime has exercised since early 1959, the designated successor to Castro was announced simultaneously.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, a protege of Raul, is a loyal functionary who has developed a reputation for bureaucratic effectiveness through administering rural provinces. At age 52, he arguably represents a youthful wave in this geriatric pond. Given the extremely slow pace of change in Cuba, and the remarkable half-century tenure of the brothers Castro, this benchmark event deserves some attention and reflection.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world stood at the edge of nuclear war. This was a singular event but also a punctuation mark in a long history of difficulties between Havana and Washington.

Raul Castro, by all accounts, lacks the popular appeal of his older brother. Enemies join with admirers in agreeing that Fidel possessed a unique leadership style before age and illness led him to retire from the presidency. His singular charisma continues to facilitate the regime's half-century in power.

After Havana was captured and despised dictator Fulgencio Batista fled in early 1959, Raul Castro handled bloody mass executions with efficient dispatch, and since has provided effective leadership of the military and a pervasive domestic security apparatus.

Soon after taking power, the Castro brothers ended hopes for representative democracy and nationalized major industries, including U.S. corporate assets. Fidel Castro highlighted alliance with the Soviet Union by joining Nikita Khrushchev in a remarkably raucous 1960 visit to the United Nations, in session in New York, punctuated by the Soviet leader publicly pounding a shoe on a desk.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower began a clandestine effort to overthrow the increasingly radical regime. The successor Kennedy administration drastically escalated such efforts. The Cuban missile crisis occurred in this context.

In recent years, the evolution of the Americas toward democratic governments has been striking. As a result, Cuba is more isolated than ever. Radical Venezuela provides important but limited aid.

When Fidel Castro stepped down, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a formal public statement, endorsed the desirability of "peaceful, democratic change" in Cuba and also suggested that the international community work with the people there. The Bush administration had been pursuing a particularly restrictive hard line toward Cuba.

President Barack Obama early in his first term loosened restrictions on interchange with Cuba. Cuban-Americans are now allowed to travel and send financial remittances to relatives still living there.

The punitive Helms-Burton Act, passed during the Clinton administration in an effort to court the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban population of Florida, does not prohibit these exchanges.

Cuba today encourages trade and investment, along with loosening travel restrictions. In this context, the American economy has great advantages. As part of such efforts, we should work to expand cultural and educational as well as family exchanges with the island.

Eisenhower initiated comparable programs with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, to great benefit. As Ike saw, the arts and sciences represent universal languages.

The wisest warriors appreciate peace.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.