Fidel Castro's "permanent revolution" in Cuba began with a bang, but is now on the verge of going out with a whimper.

As important, America's historic lapse on Cuban soil is also about to disappear.

American polls show new support for normalizing relations with Cuba. Leading U.S. politicians and major media now advocate for change in the adversarial half-century policy that pits the United States against the tiny island nation. President Barack Obama's recent handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro became a thawing gesture felt round the world.

The normalization of relations is just a question of timing. Will it come prior to the 2016 presidential elections? Or will it take the passing of the reclusive 87-year-old Fidel Castro?

Regardless of when, the end of estrangement between these two nations will be a deathblow to the greatest ongoing justification for Castro's revolution.

If the end of the Cold War is any indication, normalization will lead to an initial euphoria of increased family reunification. Families and businesses will try to reclaim lost property nationalized after the revolution. Thorough diplomatic negotiations, however, can pre-empt long legal battles. Early euphoria will give way to practical reality, and Cuba will face a painful transition, regardless of the post-Castro regime type.

The country already has a hard time sustaining its medical care and education systems. Whatever social equality currently exists is based on shared scarcity and privation. Fortunately, normalizing relations and ending the long embargo, which the Cubans refer to as "the blockade," will flood Havana markets with necessary food and other goods.

At first, some goods may be subsidized to soften the initial blow. But subsidies always come to an end, as the regime is well aware. In 1996, I was a journalism fellow reporting in Cuba during the "special period" characterized by food shortage and sacrifice. Back then, Cuba's financial backer, the Soviet Union, had collapsed and its Russian successor state did not renew the deal to send fuel in exchange for sugar.

Keeping American triumphalism at bay after normalization - as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did at the end of the Cold War - will be necessary to allow average Cuban citizens, many of them living at the poverty level, to maintain dignity and national pride. It will be a delicate dance to encourage change but also to prevent backsliding and exploitation of a country unsophisticated in modern financial structures and swindles.

Property restitution and family reunification are simple issues, however, when compared to the need to release Cuba's remaining political prisoners, including American aid worker Alan Gross.

Holding political prisoners who have dared to speak out against the leadership, the party or collectivism's failure to provide basic needs has to end.

When it comes to prisoners in Cuba, America also has to reckon with Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo is beyond an embarrassment. It is manifest hypocrisy and the cudgel used by other nations to beat us over our moral stance on human rights. Prisoners at Guantanamo are accused of al-Qaida-affiliations and terrorism, a more serious charge than Cuba's political prisoners. They are not equivalents. But the previous dark practice of "enhanced" interrogation methods on the island of Cuba is a stain on America's human-rights record. It was not just wrong. It was torture.

Obama recommitted himself during the State of the Union address to closing down Guantanamo prison. The time has come to shut down this dark chapter and bury the remnants of the debate over torture. U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, would be the perfect person to travel to Cuba and shut down the prison.

The symbolism of these actions can bring Cuba back into the community of nations and turn America's open wound into a scar that can eventually fade.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University. Email him at He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.

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