For more than half a century, Cuba played an outsize role in America’s political psyche. Even when his country ceased to be much of a policy concern – long after the memories of threatened nuclear attack and Third World adventurism had faded – Fidel Castro remained the nettlesome, living symbol of how a small island had thumbed its nose at the United States and survived.
But official enmity began to fade nearly a decade ago, when the United States elected a president who wasn’t even born at the time of the Cuban revolution, in the same year that ill health forced the aging revolutionary leader to formally resign from office.
Today, many Americans see Cuba as little more than a nearby tropical vacation spot. The latest U.S. president-elect, for whom the island rated barely a campaign mention, initially had little to say when the end of an era was announced early Saturday morning in Havana.
“Fidel Castro is dead!” Donald Trump tweeted.
In a later statement, Trump spoke of the “tragedies, deaths and pain” during Castro’s rule. Still in campaign mode, he thanked those Cuban Americans who supported his election, “including the Brigade 2506” veterans of the CIA-sponsored exile attempt to overthrow the Cuban leader in 1961.
President Barack Obama, whose legacy includes the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Havana that were severed that same year, offered a bookend to one of Castro’s most famous lines – “History will absolve me!”
Noting the “powerful emotions” Castro evoked and “countless ways” he had altered the course of lives and history, Obama said, “history will record and judge” his impact.
Numerous public opinion polls in recent years have supported Obama’s opening to Cuba and indicated little desire to return to past estrangement. But statements made in the wake of Castro’s death indicated the depth of disagreement in this country over its meaning. For some, mostly Democrats and the left, it opened new opportunities for forward movement.
“As the United States awaits a new administration, we must continue our partnership with the Cuban people as they seek to build a more hopeful future for their country,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin (Maryland), the ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
For others, it was a reminder that the past is not over. “It is important . . . for us to remember that the Cuban people are a very long way from being free,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., chairman of the House subcommittee on Latin America. And under Cuba’s current president, Castro’s brother Raúl, “the United States has a responsibility to be a better friend and ally in helping the Cuban people in their pursuit of liberty and justice. I look forward to working with the new administration in developing policies to that end.”
Trump, in his few campaign references to Cuba, gave contradictory hints about his own intentions.
In September 2015 – less than three months after Obama and Raúl Castro reestablished formal relations – Trump said he was “fine” with the new policy, although he said that Obama “should have made a better deal.” At the time, nearly all of the Republicans campaigning for the presidential nomination were opposed to the opening, including the two Cuban Americans, Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ted Cruz (Texas) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Last March, Trump said he would “probably” continue the relationship, but would want “much better deals” than Obama had struck with a series of regulatory actions and executive orders that bypassed ongoing economic sanctions that only Congress can lift.
But in the campaign’s waning days, Trump took a somewhat harsher line in speeches and interviews in Miami, implying – but never actually saying – that he would roll back the relationship Obama began.
Asked if he would sever relations again, Trump said, “I would do whatever you have to do to get a strong agreement. I like the idea of an agreement, but it has to be a real agreement,” he told CBS’s Miami affiliate.
Trump also said he would wait for a “real agreement” to nominate an ambassador to Havana.
He acknowledged that his emissaries traveled to Cuba in recent years to inquire about opening a golf course there but that it wasn’t “appropriate” to “make any deals unless we know we have a deal with Cuba.”
The Obama administration acknowledges that the new relationship it negotiated was largely one-sided, intended to help the Cuban people rather than their government. It used new Treasury Department regulations, as well as others, to stretch the limits of the embargo and other anti-Cuba restrictions to allow more money, visitors and U.S. business to go to the island. The thinking, then and now, was that Cuba’s flailing economy and aging dictators were in no position to refuse.
Fifty years of isolation had not budged Cuba’s communist system and the control of the Castros, Obama said. Perhaps a new policy, with increased outside contact and more opportunity to better themselves, would give Cubans more civil and political freedom.
U.S. companies who saw Cuba as a new market were happy. Governors of agricultural states, including Republicans, who saw places to sell their grain and apples, were happy. And American visitors – still officially barred under U.S. law from traveling there as tourists, but eager to slip through increasingly porous rules – were happy.
Virtually every country in the world, having long since moved on from isolating Cuba, expressed approval.
Cuban Americans, according to opinion polls, remain divided. Joining many in opposition, although for different reasons, was Fidel Castro. Over the past year, he issued infrequent bleats of displeasure, and warnings that the revolution was not for sale to the “empire” in the north.
So far, as critics have noted, there has been no liberalization in Cuban political life and only small economic openings. Arrests for political expression and assembly have continued unabated and during some months have increased from the dismal average of recent years.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a Trump supporter and ardent opponent of the new policies, said he expects the new president to undo “all” of Obama’s actions, including direct commercial flights from this country to Havana that are scheduled to begin next week.
“Policy is going to change dramatically,” Diaz-Balart on Wednesday told El Nuevo Herald in Miami.
Trump said this fall in Florida that “the next president can reverse” any of Obama’s new regulations, and that was “what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” But Trump has given no hint of what his demands of Cuba might be, or indicated that the issue was among his policy priorities.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karen DeYoung