A return to hostile relations could slow the pace of liberalisation, writes Nick Miroff
Fidel Castro once called George W Bush a “functional illiterate”. President Ronald Reagan was “the worst terrorist in the history of mankind”, Castro said, with ideas “from the Buffalo Bill era”.
Castro thrived on confrontation with US leaders, and he almost surely would have enjoyed facing off against America’s next one. In his statement on Saturday on Castro’s death, President-elect Donald Trump denounced him as “a brutal dictator”, and that’s the sort of dig that wouldn’t have gone unanswered in the past.
But brinkmanship and barb-throwing are not the province of his successor, Raúl Castro, who replaced his elder sibling as president a decade ago. Raúl Castro, 85, has refrained from criticising Trump, and even sent congratulations after his win.
Raúl Castro’s plans to secure the legacy of his brother’s 1959 Cuban Revolution appear to be on a collision course with the incoming Trump administration, whose top members said on Sunday that Cuba would have to make significant “changes” in order for the normalisation path charted by President Barack Obama to continue. Both Castros long insisted they would never bow to American pressure.
If tensions between Cuba and the US ratchet up again under a Trump presidency, it would be a new stress test for Raúl Castro and his quieter, more austere leadership style. Cuba will enter the Trump era with Fidel Castro’s one-party socialist state firmly in command, but without the super-charged politics and nationalist fervour he relied on to sustain it.
A return to more hostile relations with the US could also bring a new crackdown in Cuba and further slow the pace of Raúl Castro’s modest liberalisation measures at a time of stalling economic growth.
Hardliners in Cuba’s Communist Party would gladly take the country back to a simpler time, when the antagonism of the US - not the failure of government policies - was to blame for the island’s problems, and the threat of attack, real or imagined, was used to justify authoritarian political control.
On Fox News on Sunday, Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said: “There’s going to have to be some movement from Cuba in order to have a relationship with the United States.”
Castro would have to take steps to allow more political, economic and religious freedoms, Priebus added.
“These things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what President-elect Trump believes.”
Obama announced in December 2014 that the US would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed by president Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.
Obama insisted that engagement with Cuba, including fewer restrictions on US travel and trade, would facilitate the type of long-term democratic changes Washington had failed to bring about during a half-century of punitive sanctions. But Trump said during his campaign that Obama didn’t get a good “deal” and Cuba must do more.
While only the US Congress can lift the Cuba embargo, Trump could reverse many of the executive orders that have brought a surge of US visitors here and a rush of new interest from American companies.
If Trump moves to roll back those measures and attempts to apply more economic pressure, the Castro government could dig in. During the last major peak in US-Cuba tensions in March 2003, when Fidel Castro was still in charge, he ordered the round-up of 75 dissidents, sentencing them to harsh prison terms.
A few weeks later, Castro crushed a spate of boat and airplane hijackings by Cubans trying to get to the US, executing three men who commandeered a Havana passenger ferry and tried to steer it to Florida.
But Cuba was a tighter-run ship then, where few dared to criticise the government in public. The government’s security services are still pervasive, allowing no organised opposition, but the constant marching and mass rallies of Fidel Castro’s Cuba have mostly disappeared under the rule of his younger brother.
Also, the government’s monopoly on information has been broken. Millions of Cubans have cellphones, and more than 100 new wi-fi hot spots across the island allow Cubans to go online and chat with friends and relative abroad. Foreign television shows and news programming circulate widely on portable memory sticks.
Fidel Castro’s soaring rhetoric is no longer the soundtrack of Cuban public life. Raúl Castro delivers a speech every few months, choosing his words carefully and reading from a prepared text. A lifelong military man, he praises planning, modesty and preparation, and uses the word “improvisation” as a pejorative.
Those qualities helped facilitate the secret negotiations with the Obama administration on restoring relations, but they may not help him counter more aggressive language from Trump. Raúl Castro doesn’t tweet, doesn’t give media interviews and shows no enthusiasm, unlike Fidel, for being in the spotlight. He could have a hard time leading younger Cubansback into the trenches of his older brother’s “anti-imperialism” with calls for more sacrifice andobedience.
Then again, Cuban national pride remains a powerful force on the island, and nothing stirs it like a perceived threat from a swaggering American leader, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who teaches at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley.
“Even if there is no Fidel, do not underestimate the power of mobilisation of Cuban nationalism,” Lopez-Levy said. Intense Cuban nationalism “preceded Fidel”, he said, “and it will survive as a major actor in Cuban politics well beyond his passing”.
At a small snack bar called Los Afortunados (The Lucky Ones) a group of young Cubans said on Sunday they feared Trump would take US-Cuba relations into the past just as it seemed as though their lives were getting easier. If he restricted travel and the ability of Cubans in the US to visit their relatives, “it would be terrible for our families”, said Yosbel Benitez, 30.
His friend Ricardo Marrero, 28, who emigrated to the US in 2013, was back for a visit. Marrero hadn’t seen his wife and four-year-old daughter in a year. But with the wi-fi hots pots, he now sees them every day using the popular video chat app IMO. Two years earlier, it would have cost him $2 a minute to talk to them on the phone.
“It’s what gives me the strength to keep working hard to bring them over,” Marrero said.
Air travel is easier, too. Yesterday the first commercial flight from Miami in 50 years landed in Havana, with the fares less than half the price they are on the restrictive charter flights that have been the only option until now.
Marrero wasn’t eligible to vote in Florida, but he said he liked Trump and told his friends and family members not to fear the president-elect’s plans for Cuba. “He’s a businessman,” he said. “He understands.”
The snack bar, one of the types of privately run business permitted under Raúl Castro, is directly across from the US diplomatic compound, which Obama restored to full embassy status last year.
Canada, Mexico and other nations had lowered the flags at their embassies in Havana on Sunday in tribute to Fidel Castro, but the US flag was snapping in the wind at the top of the pole.