Fidel Castro’s passing removes what was long the single greatest psychological barrier to a warmer US-Cuba relationship. But it also adds to the uncertainty ahead with the transition from an Obama to a Trump administration.
“A brutal dictator” of a “totalitarian island,” declared President-elect Donald Trump, underscoring the historical trauma still separating the countries.
A more restrained President Barack Obama, carefully promoting and working to preserve his own attempt to rebuild those ties, said history would assess Castro’s impact and that the Cuban people could reflect “with powerful emotions” about how their long-time leader influenced their country.
President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, is 85. Their Communist Party shows no signs of opening up greater political space despite agreeing with the US to re-establish embassies and facilitate greater trade and investment.
As Obama leaves office in January, his decision to engage rather than pressure Havana in the hopes of forging new bonds could quickly unravel. Trump has hardly championed the effort and Republican leaders in Congress fiercely opposed Obama’s calls to end the 55-year-old US trade embargo of the island.
Trump expressed hope that Castro’s death would mark a “move away from the horrors” toward a future where Cubans live in freedom. But he said nothing about Obama’s project to reset ties, and even hailed the election support he received from veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that was backed by the CIA.
Such a statement probably will irritate Havana, coming after a two-year period of intense diplomatic discussions with Washington that have done more to improve relations between the countries than anything in the past 5 ½ decades.
Castro’s reign began when his improbable insurrection ousted the US-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Only 32 at the time, Castro was the youngest leader in Latin America and inspired revolutionaries as far afield as Africa and Asia. But Castro’s socialist Cuba was anything but an idyll, and the US quickly became his fiercest opponent.
The dynamic began changing a decade ago, as Castro stepped back from public life. His health ailing, he handed over power to brother Raul in 2008 and a period of limited economic reforms was ushered in. After Cuba’s government released American prisoner Alan Gross and agreed to a spy swap with Washington in 2014, Obama and Raul Castro felt they finally had enough trust to embark on a journey of rapprochement.
While some US investment has opened up and travel rules for Americans are now greatly eased, the normalisation has been limited because Obama could never get Republican lawmakers to end the vast restrictions tied up in the trade embargo. Triumphant alongside Trump in November, some GOP leaders have vowed to reverse Obama’s effort.
During his campaign, Trump criticised Obama for striking a “very weak agreement” and threatened to reverse Obama’s executive orders “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” He never laid out those demands, and at other times hinted about being amenable to more US investment in Cuba.
As with much of his foreign policy, Trump never outlined clearly a set of policy objectives with Cuba. The ambiguity leaves much of the recent warming on uncertain ground. It’s unclear if Castro’s death, however powerful for castigators and champions, will dramatically sway Trump one way or the other.