Republican supporters of building diplomatic ties with Cuba are hoping that Fidel Castro’s death will help persuade President-elect Donald Trump to soften his threats against Obama administration policy for fear that Russia, China and other adversaries could exploit a reversal.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, one of several Republican lawmakers who support increased engagement with Cuba, said Castro’s death could give Trump the political space needed to shift back to his original position supporting closer ties, but under a revised agreement.
“One of the refrains I’ve consistently heard in Washington is nothing can change until Castro dies,” Sanford said. “Any overture that would be perceived as helping this man who had done horrible things to their loved ones was impassible political territory based on the raw emotions involved. I think it represents an opportunity. The question is what will we do with it?”
President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro renewed diplomatic ties in 2014 after more than a half-century of hostility. Obama has since issued a series of policy changes to make it easier to travel and do business in Cuba. Castro has allowed more travel for Cubans and greater opportunities for local entrepreneurs to open small businesses, but he has been accused of not doing enough to address human rights abuses.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said he supported the idea of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba but he criticized Obama, saying the president should have struck a better deal.
It was only during the general election, when the Florida vote was in the balance, that Trump became more hostile toward relations with Cuba. He promised the traditionally conservative Cuban-American population in Miami that he’d reverse Obama’s overture to Cuba unless the communist government released political prisoners and restored religious and political freedoms.
One of the refrains I’ve consistently heard in Washington is nothing can change until Castro dies.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.
On Monday, just days after the death of Fidel Castro, Trump fueled more doubt about future of U.S.-Cuba relations when he tweeted that he would end the agreement if Cuba didn’t do more for its people.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump tweeted.
But he also did not specify which changes he’d reverse, an omission some supporters of rapprochement saw as important.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of the most outspoken Republicans in favor of improved ties, said he was uncertain what Trump meant by “the deal,” since the Obama administration’s approach has been multifaceted and doesn’t involve an expressed tit-for-tat arrangement.
Flake said he thought it would be difficult for Trump to roll back such an approach, particularly when it came to easing travel to the island and lifting restrictions on how much money Cuban-Americans could send to their families in Cuba.
“That was the biggest thing President Obama did so far, an increase in remittances,” he said. “That has had the biggest impact in a positive way for Cubans, by far.”
Rep. Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican who traveled to Cuba in the spring, said he believed there was a difference between Trump the candidate and Trump the president-elect. He said Trump often had said he’d put the American people first, and that doing so meant preparing for a post-Castro Cuba. He noted that President Raúl Castro plans to step down in 2018.
“The day has arrived,” Emmer said. “Fidel Castro is dead. What has changed in Cuba? Fidel Castro is dead. What will change in a little more than a year? Raúl Castro will step down. We’re entering into the next phase.”
The United States needs to be ready and shouldn’t allow other state powers, such as Russia or China or Iran, to use the island to exploit their interests, he said.
Russia, for example, has made several inroads in Cuba, including in nuclear energy, train repair and air traffic control technology. Raúl Castro visited Moscow last year for the 70th anniversary celebration of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II and the Red Army’s key role in that defeat.
Trump’s newly named deputy national security adviser has argued as much. Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland has said that whichever big power steps up first to offer aid to Cuba will become the island’s major sponsor for a generation. That sponsor will have certain rights and privileges.
“We must take steps now to ensure that Cuba doesn’t become a Russian or Chinese pawn, and thus serve as a launchpad to threaten America’s security were they to establish a military presence,” she wrote in a column that appeared on the Fox News website.
Sanford says he’s frustrated that Cuban policy remains at odds with so much of the rest of U.S. foreign policy.
“Our policy is to engage with the rest of the world,” he said. “But the one place that you or I can’t travel without hassle or regulation is Cuba. It just strikes me as odd.”
Sanford said he was concerned that Trump had added to his transition team one of the harshest critics of Obama’s Cuba policy, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. And Sanford knows it won’t be easy convincing his Republican colleagues to support greater ties, let alone lifting the trade embargo – many of whom don’t have a vested interest and want to support their southern Florida colleagues who adamantly oppose Obama’s Cuba policy.
What has changed in Cuba? Fidel Castro is dead. What will change in a little more than a year? Raúl Castro will step down. We’re entering into the next phase.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.
House Speaker Paul Ryan once called the embargo against Cuba a failed policy but he’s recently taken a stronger position against Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and the public campaign to lift the embargo. A Wisconsin Republican, he blasted the administration’s latest round of regulatory changes meant to chip away at the U.S. embargo.
“The Castros continue to jail pro-democracy activists at a rate of hundreds per month, yet it is full steam ahead for the Obama administration’s efforts to appease this oppressive regime,” Ryan said in a statement in October.
South Florida Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have long maintained their uncompromising positions against Cuba, though Rubio’s loss in the Florida presidential primary and the lack of outcry earlier over Obama’s policies raised doubts about how Cuban-Americans felt about the opening.
Polling by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute had tracked what had seemed to be an evolution in thinking. In 1991, the institute found that 87 percent supported the embargo, while in 2014, 52 percent favored lifting it.
But Trump showed how politically powerful the Cuban-American population continues to be. He made several last-minute dashes to South Florida to pick up support from Cuban-American voters, many of whom are angry about Obama’s new friendship with Cuba.
Trump closed Hillary Clinton’s once-growing lead in the crucial swing state and ultimately took the state and the presidential election.
David Lightman contributed to this report.