With Fidel Castro gone, a new 'maximum leader' looms over the US-Cuban relationship

The recent death of longtime Cuban strongman Fidel Castro has injected uncertainty into the future of his revolution and presents the first foreign-policy challenge faced by US President-elect Donald Trump.

The long-frosty relationship between the US and Cuba thawed over the last two years, as current US President Barack Obama led a rapprochement with Havana.

Now, as Trump is poised to take office, the relationship may slip back into hostility, and many Cuban-Americans are evaluating where they may stand in the new dynamic.

Prior to his candidacy, Trump’s businesses reportedly took a flexible stance toward the US embargo of the island, which was established in 1962 but has seen exceptions carved out since.

Trump Hotel executives reportedly travelled to Cuba in 1998 for meetings about doing business there, apparently spending money on the island without first getting the necessary licence.

More recently, executives involved in Trump’s golf operations went to the island, according to Bloomberg, though some of the executives involved in those trips said the purpose wasn’t commercial.

In the run-up to Election Day in the US, however, Trump took a hardline on Cuban relations.

In October, during a speech in Florida, where anti-Castro sentiment is stalwart, Trump called Obama’s deals to Cuba “one-sided” and only beneficial to Havana.

“But all of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said, according to CNN. (Though Trump has also said some kind of deal is “fine.”)

The president-elect doesn’t seem to have softened his stance toward the Cuban regime after the death of its “maximum leader.” Hours after Castro’s death on November 25, Trump called him a “brutal dictator who oppressed his people for six decades.”

“While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my 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,” Trump said in a statement, making no mention of previous comments about reversing Obama’s opening.

As Trump noted, Obama’s opening to Cuba has largely been based on executive orders issued from the Oval Office. Just as Obama had relative freedom to issue such orders, Trump can rescind them without much trouble.

While Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has said Trump hasn’t decided whether such a retrenchment will happen, what seems likely is a change in the White House’s attitude.

“The Obama administration’s rhetoric has been conciliatory and accepting of the Castro regime,” Ana Quintana, a policy analyst for Latin America at the conservative Heritage Institute, told NPR. “The diplomatic discourse is going to be much different” under Trump.

Many within the Republican Party, notably Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have condemned Castro, criticised Obama’s policy toward Cuba, and would likely welcome Trump’s adjustment of US-Cuban affairs.

But that doesn’t mean the whole of the GOP and business leaders will be totally sanguine with such a change.

Obama’s loosening of limits on family travel and money sent to Cuba has been popular in Florida, even among the staunchly anti-Castro community.

Other industries — like technology, tourism, or agriculture — and trade representatives from US states have been willing or eager to pursue deals with newly accessible Cuban businesses.

Only the US Congress has the authority to scrap the embargo, and that body’s Republican leadership has squashed or demurred from acting on a number of measures against it.

Relations between the two countries are likely to “have a change in trajectory” due to the change in administrations in Washington, but Castro’s death “will have no short-term or medium-term impact” for the US business community, said the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

As The Washington Post notes, US farmers have called for more access to the island, and agricultural lobbies are unlikely to take a Trump-led reclosure to the Cuban market lightly.

“I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favour of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, told The Post.

“What is he going to do? Stop direct flights to Cuba?” Colvin asked. “That’s actually popular.” (Cuban businesses have also expressed dismay at the possibility Trump will upend trade ties.)

Others have noted that a more aggressive posture toward Cuba is unlikely to yield “a better deal,” as Trump has said he wants. Rather, the Cuban leadership’s obstinance toward Washington will likely reemerge, regardless of the consequences.

“The government of Cuba will choose the suffering of its citizens over believing that it is capitalising to the United States,” John Kavulich of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council told Vice News regarding Castro-Cuban diplomatic thinking.

“I think we get into a bad place if we expect something out of the Cubans and condition what we should be doing anyway on Cuban behaviour,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) “They know how to play isolation well. They played our policy like a fiddle.”

Going forward, it’s hard to say what is approach to Cuba will be. His cabinet is only partially filled, and the important secretary of state position remains vacant.

“It’s anyone’s guess” what he’ll do, said CNN en Espanol correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez in the hours after Castro’s death was reported.

If the president-elect holds true to form, then “one test is which voice he listens to,” Geoff Thale, of the Washington Office on Latin America, told Bloomberg.

Before Castro’s death, Trump named Mauricio Claver-Carone — who has taken a hardline stance against Cuba rapprochement and argued for rescinding Obama’s Cuba orders — to his presidential transition team.

Even if the Trump administration doesn’t make concrete moves to undo the changes Obama made to US-Cuban relations, the national discussion that’s played out so far may have an effect.

“President Trump will not need to change many or [even] any regulations or policies to have an impact upon Cuba,” Kavulich told Vice News. “Banks, companies, and governments will fear the potential [for a renewal of restrictions] — and then it becomes [economic] reality.”

NOW WATCH: 4 things every American should know before booking a flight to Cuba

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