Much un­cer­tainty ahead in US-Cuba ties

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Fidel Cas­tro’s pass­ing re­moves what was long the sin­gle great­est psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier to a warmer US-Cuba re­la­tion­ship. But it also adds to the un­cer­tainty ahead with the tran­si­tion from an Obama to a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “A bru­tal dic­ta­tor” of a “to­tal­i­tar­ian is­land,” de­clared Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump, un­der­scor­ing the his­tor­i­cal trauma still sep­a­rat­ing the coun­tries. A more re­strained Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, care­fully pro­mot­ing and work­ing to pre­serve his own at­tempt to re­build those ties, said his­tory would as­sess Cas­tro’s im­pact and that the Cuban peo­ple could re­flect “with pow­er­ful emo­tions” about how their long­time leader in­flu­enced their coun­try.

In death as in life, Cas­tro has di­vided opin­ion: A rev­o­lu­tion­ary who stood up to Amer­i­can ag­gres­sion or a ruth­less dic­ta­tor whose move­ment tram­pled hu­man rights and demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions. Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro, Fidel’s younger brother, is 85. Their Com­mu­nist Party shows no signs of open­ing up greater po­lit­i­cal space de­spite agree­ing with the United States to re-es­tab­lish em­bassies and fa­cil­i­tate greater trade and in­vest­ment.

As Obama leaves of­fice in Jan­uary, his de­ci­sion to en­gage rather than pres­sure Ha­vana in the hopes of forg­ing new bonds could quickly un­ravel. Trump has hardly cham­pi­oned the ef­fort and Repub­li­can lead­ers in Congress fiercely op­posed Obama’s calls to end the 55-year-old US trade em­bargo of the is­land. “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. He of­fered nei­ther con­dem­na­tion nor praise for Cas­tro, who out­lasted in­va­sion and as­sas­si­na­tion plots, and presided over the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, which took the world to the brink of nu­clear war. “His­tory will record and judge the enor­mous im­pact of this sin­gu­lar fig­ure on the peo­ple and world around him,” Obama said, adding that US-Cuban re­la­tions shouldn’t be de­fined “by our dif­fer­ences but by the many things that we share as neigh­bors and friends.”

Trump didn’t pass off his eval­u­a­tion to the his­to­ri­ans. “To­day, the world marks the pass­ing of a bru­tal dic­ta­tor who op­pressed his own peo­ple for nearly six decades,” Trump said in a state­ment. “Fidel Cas­tro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing, poverty and the de­nial of fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights.” Trump ex­pressed hope that Cas­tro’s death would mark a “move away from the hor­rors” to­ward a fu­ture where Cubans live in free­dom. But he said noth­ing about Obama’s pro­ject to re­set ties, and even hailed the elec­tion sup­port he re­ceived from vet­er­ans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs in­va­sion that was backed by the CIA. Such a state­ment prob­a­bly will ir­ri­tate Ha­vana, com­ing af­ter a two-year pe­riod of in­tense diplo­matic dis­cus­sions with Washington that have done more to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween the coun­tries than any­thing in the past 5 1/2 decades. Cas­tro’s reign be­gan when his im­prob­a­ble in­sur­rec­tion ousted the US-backed strong­man Ful­gen­cio Batista in 1959. Only 32 at the time, Cas­tro was the youngest leader in Latin Amer­ica and in­spired rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies as far afield as Africa and Asia.

But Cas­tro’s so­cial­ist Cuba was any­thing but an idyll, and the United States quickly be­came his fiercest op­po­nent. Mem­bers of Batista’s govern­ment went be­fore summary courts, with at least 582 ex­e­cuted by firing squad in the first two years of Cas­tro’s rule. In­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers were closed. Gays were herded into camps for “re-ed­u­ca­tion.” Tens of thou­sands were held as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Cubans fled. Af­ter the Soviet Union van­ished, Cuba’s econ­omy col­lapsed. In Mi­ami and other Amer­i­can cities, a pow­er­ful emi­gre com­mu­nity emerged that was bit­terly op­posed to any im­prove­ment in US re­la­tions with Cas­tro’s govern­ment. For many years, their threat alone was enough to sink any at­tempts to bridge di­vides. The dy­namic be­gan chang­ing a decade ago, as Cas­tro stepped back from pub­lic life. His health ail­ing, he handed over power to brother Raul in 2008 and a pe­riod of limited eco­nomic re­forms was ush­ered in. Af­ter Cuba’s govern­ment re­leased Amer­i­can pris­oner Alan Gross and agreed to a spy swap with Washington in 2014, Obama and Raul Cas­tro felt they fi­nally had enough trust to em­bark on a jour­ney of rap­proche­ment.

While some US in­vest­ment has opened up and travel rules for Amer­i­cans are now greatly eased, the nor­mal­iza­tion has been limited be­cause Obama could never get Repub­li­can law­mak­ers to end the vast re­stric­tions tied up in the trade em­bargo. Tri­umphant along­side Trump in Novem­ber, some GOP lead­ers have vowed to re­verse Obama’s ef­fort. “Now that Fidel Cas­tro is dead, the cru­elty and op­pres­sion of his regime should die with him,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, said in a state­ment Satur­day.

In this March 1985 file photo, Cuba’s leader Fidel Cas­tro ex­hales cigar smoke dur­ing an in­ter­view at the pres­i­den­tial palace in Ha­vana. —AP

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