Fidel Castro’s death may offer President-elect Donald Trump an opening to back away from a sweeping pledge the Republican candidate made to South Florida voters to reverse U.S. rapprochement with Cuba.
While condemning Castro as a “brutal dictator” on Saturday, Trump also spoke of a new beginning for the Cuban people toward “prosperity” and “liberty”
“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.
While a Castro remains in charge of the communist island, the psychological impact of Fidel’s death can’t be ignored, said experts who’ve spent years immersed in the dynamics of U.S.-Cuba relations. His death may take the sting out of some of the harshest critics of restored U.S.-Cuba relations while eliminating what some analysts believe was the primary opponent to reforms sought by current Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Cuba experts like William Leogrande of American University say Fidel Castro’s passing may provide Trump with an opening to shift back to an earlier position when he supported relations with the island.
“It’s easier to finesse a campaign promise when it’s overtaken by events,” said LeoGrande, a co-author of the book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.” “There is no event that is more momentous for U.S.-Cuba relations than Fidel Castro’s death.”
Trump put one of the harshest critics of Obama’s Cuba policy, Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, on his transition team, but he also named a new deputy national security adviser, Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland, who has publicly backed open relations with Cuba.
“We must take steps now to ensure that Cuba doesn’t become a Russian or Chinese pawn, and thus serve as a launch pad to threaten America’s security were they to establish a military presence,” McFarland wrote in a 2014 column published by Fox News.
Predicting what Trump will do next is never easy. Like other policies, Trump’s views on Cuba shifted over the course of months as the campaign heated up. During the Republican primaries, he repeatedly said he supported the idea of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, but criticized Obama for not striking a better deal.
It was only during the general election, when the Florida vote was in the balance, that Trump shifted to a tougher line. During a September trip to Miami, he promised the traditionally conservative Cuban-American population that he’d reverse Obama’s appeals to Cuba unless the communist government freed political prisoners and restored religious and political freedoms.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said at a campaign event. “Not my demands – our demands.”
It wouldn’t be easy for Trump to reverse Obama’s policies. The current administration has actively sought to break down enough trade barriers that reversing course would be difficult, if not impossible.
It relaxed travel restrictions, eliminated limits on remittances and restored direct mail. Last month, it announced a sixth round of regulatory changes that included allowing Americans to bring home more of the island’s coveted cigars and rum.
Trump could close the embassy and restore restrictions on travel. But it would be more difficult to reverse some of the commercial initiatives that have been put into action. A Miami-based cruise line has already begun to sail to Cuban ports, and commercial airlines are flying from U.S. cities to Cuba.
But the divisions over the rapprochement remain, evidenced in the two statements issued by Trump and President Barack Obama in response to Castro’s death.
Trump’s tone was bellicose, calling Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
“Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights,” the statement said. It pointedly mentioned Trump’s support from Cuban-Americans, including the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association whose members fought in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Obama responded to Fidel Castro’s death by offering condolences to the Castro family and extending “a hand of friendship” to the Cuban people.
“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,” Obama said.
It made no judgment on Castro’s legacy.
“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” it said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio blasted Obama for issuing a “pathetic statement on the death of a dictator” that doesn’t mention those that he killed and imprisoned.
“The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not,” Rubio said. “And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.”
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said the reality is that the communist transition in Cuba occurred years ago.
“So, don’t expect changes from Fidel’s death,” she wrote on Twitter.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a South Florida Republican, wrote on his Facebook account that he hopes Castro’s death ushers new hope that “the Cuban people finally will be free.”
“Today, a tyrant is dead,” he wrote early Saturday. “Now we must work even harder toward achieving liberty, basic rights, and free, multi-party elections for the Cuban people.”
The hordes of revelers who swarmed into Miami’s Little Havana district early Saturday illustrated the personal symbol that Fidel Castro was for many Cuban-Americans, who hold him responsible for taking away their country and forcing them into exile.
Leogrande said he doesn’t think the animosity will be as great toward the Cuban government.
Trump may also rethink how reversing relations in Cuba could impact ties with other Latin American leaders. The rapprochement paved a way for improved ties with the rest of Latin America, which had largely opposed the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Several nations threatened to boycott the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama unless Cuba was invited. It also has helped the United States rally support for dealing with other anti-American leaders such as Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.
Fidel Castro’s death may also be an opportunity for Raul Castro, who has said he plans to step down after his term ends in 2018. Fidel Castro never publicly opposed his brother’s restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, but he certainly wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter. Fidel Castro’s supporters also appeared to be a hindrance for Raul Castro’s efforts at reform.
Following Obama’s historic trip to Cuba in March, Fidel Castro responded with a lengthy and derisive letter that recounted the history of U.S. aggression against Cuba.
“We don’t need the empire to give us any presidents,” Fidel wrote.
Raul Castro appeared to defer to his older brother and his supporters, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Shifter said Fidel’s death could allow Raul Castro to move without that opposition.
While Shifter said he doesn’t think Trump will actively seek to deepen relations with Cuba, he also doesn’t think Trump will move quickly to reverse anything.
He noted that while the Cuban exile community in Miami remains divided on the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of some business and travel opportunities, the changes remain popular in much of the country, especially among businesses and farmers that view Cuba as a new market. Several Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Reps. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, joined Obama on his trip to Cuba.
“The question now is with his death will there be more space for Raul to respond to overtures,” Shifter said. “That is what Washington will be watching for.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.