Until Saturday, the jury was out on how President-elect Donald Trump would proceed on the issue of Cuba. Not for long: a few hours after Fidel Castro’s death was announced, on Friday night, Trump embarked on a series of increasingly aggressive tweets in which he threatened to undo President Barack Obama’s historic initiative to open up Cuba, which has been underway since December, 2014.
During his campaign, Trump had, characteristically, sent out mixed signals about his views on the Obama Administration’s diplomatic breakthrough with the government of Raúl Castro, and its effort to love-bomb the country with a barrage of American tourists, private investments in entrepreneurial startups, and larger-scale business deals. Early this year, Trump had expressed some offhand approval of the Obama initiative, but he began to toughen his talk as the campaign wound to a close. A few days before the election, he gave a speech in Miami in which he said that he would roll back Obama’s policy unless the Castro government made significant concessions on human rights and other freedoms.
Then, last Monday, Trump named Mauricio Claver-Carone, a prominent Cuban-American pro-embargo lobbyist, to his advance transition team at the Treasury Department, the agency that supervises U.S. trade embargoes. As the director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy pac, Claver-Carone has been a prominent critic of President Obama’s attempts to get rid of the fifty-five-year-old embargo on most U.S. trade with Cuba. (Hillary Clinton had promised to carry on with Obama’s efforts to erode the embargo and to seek its eventual elimination in Congress.) A few days after Trump’s election win, Claver-Carone published an op-ed in the Miami Herald titled “Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse.” In it, he argued against U.S. corporate investments in Cuba on the ground that they would help sustain the regime.
Claver-Carone’s appointment provoked expressions of worry from several prominent Cuban analysts. Last Tuesday, the Brooking Institution’s Ted Piccone wrote to me:
As we all try to read the tea leaves, I would caution against blowing one appointment to a transition team out of proportion. It could be a sop to the Miami crowd but without carrying much influence in the end . . . we just don’t know. That said, I see the situation this way: Trump promised the pro-embargo hardliners that he would reverse Obama’s policy on Cuba unless Havana delivers improvements on human rights, freedom of religion, political prisoners, etc. (We know the Cuban government is not going to relent and in fact hardliners there are happy to have the return of Goliath to their David.)
But Piccone said that he didn’t see a “wholesale reversal of Obama’s policy outreach” as likely, predicting instead a “selective paring of the Obama steps,” possibly including a freeze on commercial relations—especially with any of Cuba’s state-owned enterprises—and a stricter enforcement of the relaxed travel rules that have allowed increased numbers of American tourists to visit the island in the past two years. Given the level of U.S. business interest in Cuba, Piccone added, it was still possible that Trump might opt for a moderate approach, but he cautioned that time was of the essence. “Those constituencies in favor of normalization, including many Republicans from farm states and the pro-business crowd and Cuban Americans with strong connections to Republicans, will need to move quickly to get a hearing and make their case for a go-slow approach.”
Vicki Huddleston, who served as the U.S. charge d’affaires in Cuba during the Clinton Administration, told me that she had little doubt that change was coming with Trump. “The very best we can hope for is the status quo, which I think quite unlikely,” she e-mailed me on Friday, a few hours before Fidel died. “And even then status quo is essentially rollback as the laws that mandate the embargo will remain.”
At the time, Huddleston said that she also believed that Trump would make some “showy” gestures to his pro-embargo Miami supporters, and guessed that these might include a renewal of restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba, as well as a possible downgrading of the status of the U.S. diplomatic mission there. But she said that it still seemed possible that Trump might allow bilateral trade deals and financial investments to proceed, “because he is pro-business.”
Even after Castro’s death, some experts were hopeful. Matthew Aho, an adviser on Cuba at the law firm Akerman, wrote to me, “Once we get past all the bellicose comments, I believe the Trump Administration will recognize how much Cuba has changed in recent years and that sanctions and isolation don’t make sense in the current context of steady reform and economic engagement. What is the U.S. going to do, impose sanctions on Cuban entrepreneurs and small businesses?” Trump, he added, had “bigger fish to fry.”
Trump, however, seems to have decided that the timing is right for him to dispense with niceties and deliver an ultimatum, and to do so mostly by Twitter. His first tweet in reaction to the news of Castro’s death came a little after 8 a.m.on Saturday and said, simply, “Fidel Castro is dead!” He released a statement later in the day, in which he described the late Castro as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” He spoke of Castro’s legacy as one of “firing squads, unimaginable suffering and the denial of fundamental human rights,” and added, “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 have the freedom they so richly deserve.” He concluded, “Our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey towards prosperity and liberty.”
And then, on Monday morning, following a series of blustery anti-Castro pronouncements on the Sunday talk shows by his aides Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus, and by Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio, Trump tweeted again: “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.” A few minutes after that tweet, I asked a Cuban diplomat if he’d seen it. He hadn’t. When I read it to him, he said, in a low voice, “No, no, no. This isn’t going to end well.”
It seems likely that it won’t. It is hard to conceive of Raúl Castro, who is in mourning for his older brother, reacting kindly to Trump’s ill-timed and hostile broadsides. Besides Raúl, there are a great many more Cubans who are not communists but who are proud nationalists, and who, whatever their feelings about Fidel or his brother, will take umbrage at Trump’s casual antagonisms. In one fell swoop—with a few tweets—the President-elect is in the process of torpedoing a diplomatic breakthrough that took several years of arduous negotiations to pull off, and that successfully ended one of the longest and most acrimonious standoffs of modern times.