Trump suggests tougher stance on Cuba after Castro’s death

A stencil graffiti featuring Fidel Castro's image says in Spanish "Fidel among us," in an alleyway in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

Two recent events—the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump—offer an opportunity for Cuba and the United States to reset their relationship, either by reaffirming a commitment to improving it or by retreating to the icy interactions that existed for most of the last 50 years.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has signaled an intent to revert to a hardline stance against Cuba’s communist government after the Obama administration took significant steps toward normalizing the relationship between the countries.

Since 2014, the U.S. government has reopened its embassy in Havana and begun allowing investment and travel to Cuba that had long been restricted. Cuba’s government under Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, has allowed slightly more freedom of expression and information, but progress has been slow.

Advocates for normalizing relations say decades of trade embargoes and travel bans only harmed the Cuban people. Trump and his supporters argue that Cuba has given too little in return for the concessions Obama made and the repressive Castro government should not be rewarded for that.

President Obama’s response to Castro’s death has been widely criticized by Republicans for not placing emphasis on his regime’s brutality and oppression, referring vaguely to a history of “discord and profound political disagreements.”

“Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro's family, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people,” Obama said. “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.”

In a National Review op-ed, Sen. Ted Cruz argued that Obama’s statement failed to convey the horror his family experienced under Fidel Castro, and he suggested Obama is wrong to believe that Raul Castro is interested in democratic reforms.

“With all due respect to Mr. Obama, the 60 years Fidel Castro spent systematically exploiting and oppressing the people of Cuba provide more than enough history to pass judgment on both Fidel and, now more importantly, his brother Raul,” he wrote.

At a White House briefing Monday, press secretary Josh Earnest insisted the statement was not an attempt at “whitewashing” the activities Fidel Castro presided over. He dismissed Obama’s critics as “scrambling to justify their loyalty to an obviously failed policy.”

After an initial tweet bluntly and emphatically stating that Castro is dead, Trump’s official statement described him as a “brutal dictator” and expressed hope that the Cuban people can achieve freedom with him gone.

"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,” Trump said.

The president-elect’s top aides hit the Sunday morning talk shows to elaborate on his views about Cuba’s future and its relationship with the U.S.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said on Fox News that the Trump administration will not accept a “unilateral deal” that gives Cuba what it wants with nothing in return.

“Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what President-elect Trump believes, and that’s where he’s going to head,” Priebus said.

On ABC’s “This Week,” adviser Kellyanne Conway said Trump would only deal with “a very different Cuba.”

“He wants to make sure that when the United States of America, when he’s president, engages in any type of diplomatic relations or trade agreements … that we as America are being protected and we as America are getting something in return,” she said.

Neither explicitly said Trump would reverse the executive orders loosening restrictions on Cuba when he takes office, but both suggested that is likely if Cuba does not offer further democratic and capitalist reforms.

On Monday, Trump reiterated that point on Twitter. “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,” he wrote.

The Cuba Trump faces in January may have a different outlook as well. Although Fidel Castro turned the presidency over to his brother years ago, he remained a significant figure in Cuban politics until his death.

“He has been a brake, I’m sure, on what Raul Castro was trying to do. The specter of Fidel was always there and he was very much less pragmatic and more hardline,” said Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Cuba project at the Center for International Policy.

Raul Castro will now face pressure from all sides to speed up reforms or to reverse them. Since Fidel relinquished the position of first secretary of the Communist Party in 2011, he has made significant changes that face political and ideological opposition.

“Not everyone agrees with him in that country,” said Philip Brenner, professor of international relations at American University and author of “A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution Under Raul Castro.”

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley and a former analyst for the Cuban government, said some observers overestimate Fidel’s influence on Raul’s government. Raul Castro has set the priorities and timing of reforms, and although he plans to step down as president in 2018, the 85-year-old plans to remain first secretary of the party through 2021.

Following years of congressional gridlock and staunch opposition from many Republicans and some Democrats to any efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama took action unilaterally in 2014 to lift whatever economic and travel prohibitions he could. Eliminating the trade embargo completely would require approval by Congress.

Although American companies have begun doing business in Cuba and international tourism is already a burgeoning industry on the island, there is little doubt that Trump can legally rescind Obama’s orders. Whether it would be politically or economically wise to do so is a very different question.

“Most of the things that President Obama approved can be erased,” Lopez-Levy said, but that would eliminate some benefits being felt on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

“The change of the policy of Obama was not based on good will toward the Castro government. It was based on American national interests, pure and simple,” he said.

A productive relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has potential implications for law enforcement, national security, and economic interests.

According to Brenner, research being done by Cuban and American scientists could lead to new treatments for lung cancer and diabetes. Cuban-Americans are also now able to travel more easily to visit family.

Although Cuba has struggled to capitalize fully on the economic opportunities the policy changes have created, there have been significant changes in the private sector, particularly in tourism where commercial flights have begun.

Trump could face opposition from the aviation industry, hotel developers, pharmaceutical companies, agriculture interests, and some Cuban-Americans if he attempts to revive restrictions on travel and commerce.

“To pull back from those is going to cause a lot of unhappiness from U.S. businesses,” Newhouse said.

Experts are skeptical that rolling back Obama’s orders will achieve Trump’s goal of wringing more concessions from the Cuban government.

“The United States has very little leverage other than to bomb Cuba,” Brenner said.

Businesses and governments in countries that view Cuba more positively would be ready to replace anything Trump takes away. Improved relations between Cuba and Latin America was one of the developments that led Obama to change his stance toward Cuba.

A Trump administration reverting to a Cold War mentality could prove counterproductive and chill any desire on Cuba’s part to restore relations.

“If Trump starts to use the same lines that were used during the Bush administration, which is that you have to become a democracy and give freedom of the press and greatly improve human rights…they’re just going to get their backs up,” Newhouse said. “Nothing will change.”

Even opponents of the Castro regime might rally around it in the face of U.S. antagonism.

“The one thing they’re absolutely adamant about is they’re not going to be bullied by the U.S. into doing anything,” she said.

Still, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach applauded Trump’s statement, saying in The Hill that he “acquitted himself brilliantly” by calling out Fidel Castro’s evil while Obama sidestepped it.

After Castro’s death was confirmed Saturday, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements attempting to put his record in perspective.

“As other countries in the region turned away from authoritarian rule, only Fidel Castro’s Cuba continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Castro’s draconian rule and the harsh punishments he meted out to dissidents kept his repressive system rooted firmly in place for decades.”

Tactics like surveillance, beatings, and arbitrary detention are still in use today and “Orwellian laws” against free speech remain in place, even as improvements continue in areas like education and health care.

“The state of freedom of expression in Cuba, where activists continue to face arrest and harassment for speaking out against the government, is Fidel Castro’s darkest legacy,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for Amnesty International.

In his op-ed, Cruz said it is a mistake to presume Fidel Castro’s death will lead to material change in Cuba.

“A dictator is dead,” he wrote. “But his dark, repressive legacy will not automatically follow him to the grave. Change can come to Cuba, but only if America learns from history and prevents Fidel’s successor from playing the same old tricks.”

Despite ongoing concerns about human rights and repression, Newhouse said 57 years of opposition and isolation failed to improve conditions in Cuba. She suggested the gradual change that has begun over the last few years should be encouraged, not impeded.

“If Trump gets in there and starts cutting back everything Obama’s done, God only knows how long it will take,” she said.

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