Fidel Castro's death could ensure Obama's opening to Cuba survives
With his legacy in mind, President Obama has used the final months of
his administration trying to ensure that his historic reopening of U.S.
relations with Cuba could not be easily reversed.
He ended a Cold War animosity that had begun before he was born and
established unprecedented diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with a
Communist-ruled island long off-limits to most U.S. citizens.
President-elect Donald Trump had previously called for a reversal of
Obama's approach to Cuba, but his intentions now are unclear. And the
death late Friday of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — who Trump called a
"brutal dictator" in a statement Saturday - may hand the incoming
administration a politically acceptable way to keep some of Obama's
changes in place.
Trump may have signaled a shift in his hard-line stance when he said it
was his "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."
As a candidate, Trump variously threatened to scuttle Obama's changes —
especially when he was campaigning among anti-Castro Cuban immigrants in
Florida — or to seek what he calls a better deal.
The question is, as Cuba expert William LeoGrande at American University
in Washington put it: Will Cuba policy meet Trump the hard-liner or
Trump the deal-maker?
Trump's selection of a secretary of State, still very much up in the air
and reportedly roiled by disagreement within the transition team, may
give a sense of how much he will try to change policy toward Cuba.
Some reversals, from a legal and technical standpoint, would be easy.
Obama enacted many of the new measures through executive authority and
once he's in the White House, Trump can overturn those with his signature.
Obama recently used executive action, for example, to expand the legal
importation of Cuban cigars and rum by U.S. citizens who visit the
island. Obama also vastly increased the number of Americans who can
visit, and U.S. businesses that can work on the island.
But there is also pressure from U.S. agriculture and tourism sectors to
continue with the more relaxed regimen for doing business. With flights
and cruise ships pouring into Cuba daily, the country is proving a
wildly fertile new market.
Trump the hard-liner spoke first in his statement Saturday.
"A brutal dictator" has died, Trump said, citing what he called Castro's
legacy of "firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the
denial of fundamental human rights."
Trump went on to praise the support of the Cuban-American group of
veterans who fought in the failed CIA-backed attempted invasion of the
Bay of Pigs in 1961. The episode has been considered a fiasco for U.S.
policy ever since.
But then Trump suggested that Castro's death marked a turning point and
opened a future in which Cubans "can finally begin their journey
toward prosperity and liberty."
Castro's brother Raul, the current president, is also a communist and an
old-school military man. But Raul, 85, has already said he will step
down in 2018, so Trump presumably won't have to deal with him for very
long after he enters the White House.
Whatever direction Trump chooses, he is unlikely to try to reimpose the
complete diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba even if he revokes
some of Obama's executive actions.
After decades of pent-up demand, the number of U.S. tourists to Cuba
grew 80% this year compared with 2015. Hundreds of commercial flights go
to and from the island weekly, with U.S. carriers scheduled to join this
Other tourism industries, including in-home lodgings, restaurants and
banking services with U.S. credit cards — unheard of until now — are
Agriculture businesses, including chicken and pork suppliers in the
southern United States and farm-equipment companies in the Midwest, are
eagerly pursuing prospects.
The business community will undoubtedly make its position heard as the
president-elect ponders what to do in Cuba.
"There is going to be a strong push back," said Eric Olson, associate
director of the Latin American program at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Trump is after all a
hotel man. I suspect he will understand the potential for American
In deciding to restore ties with Cuba, Obama made several calculations.
A half-century-old policy of isolation, embargo and sanctions had
clearly not weakened the Castro brothers' hold on power. Many would
argue that it backfired.
Obama also decided that waiting for reciprocal action from Havana was
holding his decisions hostage to what the Castro government might or
might not do.
Ultimately, he decided, engaging with Cubans, first, and Cuba second
would spread a desire and impetus for freedom, ignoring whether
President Castro acted in kind.
After two years of secret negotiations, facilitated in part by Pope
Francis, Obama and Raul Castro announced a renewal of diplomatic ties in
December 2014. Within a year, the countries had reopened their embassies
and expanded trade and travel. This year, Obama traveled to Havana, the
first sitting U.S. president to do so in nearly 90 years.
Obama's next step was to push the policy as far as he could. He could
not end the trade embargo put in place under the Eisenhower
administration. Only Congress could do that, and a handful of
Cuban-American legislators continued to block that path.
Instead, Obama ordered changed hundreds of regulations that, in the
words of his national security advisor, Susan Rice, would make the swing
of the pendulum permanent.
"It would be profoundly unwise and counterproductive to turn back the
clock," she said in October.
Obama and advocates of the thaw with Cuba note that public opinion in
the U.S. has also shifted. New opinion polling indicates overwhelming
approval for detente among Cuban-Americans, traditionally anti-Castro
but now infused with younger blood.
"The death of Fidel Castro will make it more difficult to justify
policies that are rooted in past ideologies rather than future
opportunities," said Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington
Office on Latin America, a nonpartisan think tank.
Source: Fidel Castro's death could ensure Obama's opening to Cuba
survives - LA Times -