Author: Nahal Toosi
Now that Fidel Castro is dead, there are signs President Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba might survive Donald Trump’s presidency.
As word spread of the 90-year-old’s passing, some of Castro’s fiercest critics in Congress rejoiced that a “tyrant” was finally gone. But none — at least not initially — demanded an all-out reversal of Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties to Cuba. Instead, they insisted that the U.S. simply has to be tougher on the communist regime in Havana.
“Castro’s successors cannot hide and must not be allowed to hide beneath cosmetic changes that will only lengthen the malaise of the Cuban nation,” Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement early Saturday. “No regime, no matter who leads it, will have a shred of legitimacy if it has not been chosen by the people of Cuba in free and fair elections.”
The lack of a call for an end to diplomatic ties suggests that hardliners in Congress are coming to terms with the growing bipartisan support for the relationship with Cuba. Fidel Castro’s death may even give some Republicans a fresh reason to cast off decades-old grudges against the island just 90 miles off America’s shores.
He defended his outreach to the Cuban regime as a policy rooted in hope for the future, not making excuses for the past.
A Republican congressional aide told POLITICO on Saturday that lawmakers are increasingly more focused on the need to re-calibrate some of the regulatory changes made by Obama than completely cutting off ties. They care less about whether the U.S. mission in Havana is called an embassy than they do about whether the U.S., through its dialogues and regulatory changes, is doing enough to force the communist regime to change its practices, the aide said.
A Trump administration could, for instance, adjust regulations that cover who can travel to Cuba or who can do business there to send a signal to the Cuban government that it has to make some changes on human rights and other fronts if it wants to reap the benefits of the relationship, the aide said.
Under Obama, “all these dialogues hasn’t moved an inch forward, not even an inch!” the aide said. “The dialogue needs to be: These are our terms, take it or leave it.”
Obama, in his statement, was careful not to condemn or praise Castro.
“We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation,” he wrote. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
But he defended his outreach to the Cuban regime as a policy rooted in hope for the future, not making excuses for the past.
“Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro’s family, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people. In the days ahead, they will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America,” Obama said.
Even Trump, for most of his campaign, suggested that he was fine with Obama’s decision to restore ties to Cuba, a move that many in the business community Trump hails from have long wanted. It wasn’t until the last few weeks before the Nov. 8 election that he said he would reverse “all of the concessions” Obama made “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”
“You know what the demands are,” Trump told a Miami crowd in September 2016. “Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.
On Saturday, Trump’s statement on Castro’s death echoed the language of many of the anti-Castro hardliners in Congress in that it castigated the dead revolutionary’s legacy but spoke hopefully of the future. Trump gave no indication he planned to cut off diplomatic ties.
“While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve,” Trump said. “Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”
Vice-President-elect Mike Pence tweeted: “The tyrant #Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!”
Obama’s move to restore ties, which was announced in December 2014 and formally took effect in July 2015, was undertaken largely through executive orders and regulatory changes. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana was upgraded to an embassy; both countries’ diplomats now have more freedom to travel in the host nation; and some limits on staffing were lifted. In a statement released Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. “reaffirms its support for deepening our engagement with the Cuban people now and in coming years.”
Obama also has dramatically loosened trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, and the two countries have engaged in a series of dialogues on everything from counter-narcotics initiatives to human rights. But the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains intact — only Congress can eliminate it. And while Obama has nominated an ambassador to Cuba, anti-Castro senators have said they’ll block any confirmation.
The issue of human rights on the island remains paramount for many of the hard-line lawmakers, nearly all of whom are Republicans and several of whom are of Cuban descent. Cuba continues to arrest political prisoners and runs what’s essentially a security state. The number of Cubans seeking to reach the United States has surged since the diplomatic re-opening — many fear the U.S. will repeal a law that gives Cuban refugees fast-track legal status. And U.S. businesses seeking to operate in Cuba have found the regulatory environment there to be less hospitable than they’d hoped.
Furthermore, the rule of the Castros is not over. Fidel’s brother, Raul, has run Cuba in his stead since 2006. It was Raul who announced Fidel’s death on Cuban television late Friday.(Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018.)
“As an evil dictator finally faces his Creator, the malevolent Castro dictatorship continues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another Floridian with Cuban roots, wrote on his Facebook page. “Shamefully, President Obama has spent the past eight years attempting to cede important leverage to the ailing Castro regime.” Earlier in the week, Diaz-Balart was reported to have said he wants Trump to undo “all” of Obama’s Cuba actions, including the new permissions for airlines to fly to the island. But it hasn’t been clear if the congressman also wants to sever diplomatic ties, and his Facebook post Saturday didn’t indicate that one way or another.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the rare Democrat to oppose Obama’s Cuba policy, chose to focus on the future, saying in his statement that Castro’s death represents an “opportunity.”
“The United States and the international community must stand up and support the Cuban people as they seek ways to implement changes that bring the fundamental principles of democracy, reinstate the freedoms that inform society and unleash the creative and inventive power-of-people to build a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Castro’s death “marks the end of an era for Cuba and the Cuban people. After decades under Fidel’s doctrine of oppression and antagonism, there is hope that a new path for Cuba is opening.”
As Trump decides what to do on Cuba, he may also want to consider the effect on his administration’s relationship with the rest of Latin America.
Although the Cuban communist model is no longer something that is idealized in the region, the United States’ 50-plus years of enmity with Cuba had hurt its standing with other Latin American countries. Obama’s decision to restore ties brought a flood of goodwill from the region. Trump already has infuriated much of Latin America through his negative statements about Mexico and free trade deals; an all-out reversal on U.S. Cuba policy could only make things worse.
But how the Cuban government acts in the coming days and weeks also matters.
“I fear, in the short term, that the Communist Party will clamp down even harder on dissent in a show of force,” said Peter Schechter, a Latin America expert with The Atlantic Council. “It will be important for the U.S. not to make mistakes: now more than ever, the Cubans have to own what happens next. Any sign of manipulation, imposition or influence by Washington will only hurt the cause of freedom and reform in Cuba.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, one of the lead lawmakers pushing legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, sympathized with hard-liners’ concerns on the human rights issues.
“So much of our policy to Cuba in the last decades has not been based on reason — it’s been based on the ghosts of the past,” she told POLITICO in a phone interview. “Especially with Castro gone, you can negotiate things and push for more human rights changes. At some point we want to allow the commerce in and the visitors, and that will help about bring change on the human rights front.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump in the Republican primary and reluctantly embraced him after dropping out of the presidential race in March, urged Congress and the president-elect to hold the line.
“The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights,” he said in a statement.
“Fidel Castro’s death cannot bring back his thousands of victims, nor can it bring comfort to their families,” added Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father fled Cuba, on Facebook. “Today we remember them and honor the brave souls who fought the lonely fight against the brutal Communist dictatorship he imposed on Cuba.”