The AP ran a long analytic piece over the weekend, trying to parse how Castro’s death might affect U.S.-Cuban relations—especially with Trump coming into office. While Obama tried to offer a carefully balanced statement on “El Comandante” in an effort to preserve his tentative opening to the regime, Donald Trump took a different tack. A taste:
“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 5½ decades.
The truth is that the death of Fidel resolves little when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations—the following salient facts remain, no matter what the tone is coming out of the White House:
First, Cuba is broke and at a dead end politically and economically. With no help from Venezuela or elsewhere, economic necessity is likely to continue to force the government to reach out—to international markets and to the United States.
Second, the United States, whatever its reservations about the Castro regime, is unlikely to favor a chaotic transition on the island. Waves of desperate migrants appearing on the beaches of Florida would be profoundly unwelcome to a Trump administration. Therefore, the two sides need one another. Cuba needs continuing tourism and remittances from the US; the United States wants stability in Havana.
At the same time, neither side welcomes too close an embrace. The Cubans fear that true economic normalization would unleash Cuban Americans to, in essence, buy back the island, re-establishing themselves as powerful political actors in a post-Castro Cuba. And for its part, the Trump administration doesn’t want to embrace a regime that many of its supporters believe is hostile to American interests and values.
What we could expect then, is something like a continuation of the status quo: no further advance from the opening of the Obama era, but no total retreat from it, either. Trump may not appoint an ambassador to Cuba but discussions between the governments on topics of mutual interest are likely to continue—and the U.S. is unlikely to make large cuts in the flow of remittances (from Cuban Americans to relatives back home) that do so much to keep the island afloat.
Finally, it’s important to remember that from the U.S. point of view, Cuba is only one of the two cases of socialist implosion taking place in the Caribbean. Venezuela’s potential to destabilize the region is much greater than Cuba’s, and Caracas rather than Havana is likely to emerge as the focus of the most sustained American policy attention during the Trump years. That Venezuela is substantively more important to the United States but less symbolically charged could have an impact on US-Cuba relations.