By: Melanie Zanona
The death of Fidel Castro has reignited the debate over President Obama’s opening with Cuba, with hard-liners renewing their calls for President-elect Donald Trump to revisit the decision to normalize diplomatic relations.
Critics of the Obama policy, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), argue that travel and trade with Cuba will only serve to enrich the Castro government despite its history of human rights abuses.
“We’re going to re-examine everything the president has done, and figure out what’s the right thing to do,” Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, told reporters Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the Republican Party appeared to be warming to the idea of a diplomatic thaw with Cuba.
Commercial U.S. flights started landing on the island this summer, pro-tourism bills were gaining more Republican co-sponsors and an amendment to lift the ban on Cuba tourism was easily added to a Senate spending bill earlier this year.
But after Castro — who ruled the Communist nation for decades before turning it over to his brother, Raúl, in 2008 — died on Friday, critics of the rapprochement of Cuba have gone on the offensive in hopes of shaping Trump’s policy once he takes office in January.
Trump has repeated his threat to reverse Obama’s decision to open diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba if the communist government doesn’t adopt changes.
“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,” Trump tweeted.
But it’s still unclear just how far Trump is willing to go in rolling back Obama’s laundry list of regulatory actions, which are aimed at easing travel and trade restrictions and are widely popular with the U.S. business community.
Trump said earlier this year that he was “fine” with opening up Cuba and told CNN he may open a hotel there. A top aide to the real estate mogul, Kellyanne Conway, said on “Meet the Press” this weekend that “nothing is definite” when it comes to Trump’s Cuba policies.
“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a vocal proponent of reengaging with Cuba, told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ve heard varying signals from the Trump administration. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Since Obama first announced the new policy toward Cuba in 2014, the administration has reopened the embassies in Havana and Washington, removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror and resumed commercial air service with the island for the first time in over 50 years.
U.S. tourism to the island is still banned and the trade embargo has not been lifted, but Obama has carried out a string of other regulatory changes aimed at bringing the two countries closer together.
Those actions include allowing Cuban textiles, coffee and pharmaceuticals to be imported to the U.S.; removing or lessening most licensing requirements for permitted travel to Cuba; allowing American travelers to bring home an unlimited amount of rum and cigars; and authorizing U.S. individuals and businesses to have bank accounts on the island.
But because almost everything was done through executive action and without the help of Congress, there is wide consensus that almost all of Obama’s Cuba policies can be dismantled with the stroke of a pen.
“Nothing [Obama] has done in the past 23 months cannot be reversed by President-elect Trump with a signature,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “The only impediment to president-elect Trump reversing or revising the initiatives of President Obama is a lack of ink in his pen.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is of Cuban descent, said he was encouraged by Trump’s response to Castro’s death.
“There’s a stark contrast this week between President-elect Trump’s response to the death of Fidel Castro, and the weak and timid response of President Obama,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday. “I’m encouraged by that stark contrast.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), another staunch Cuba critic, hopes Castro’s death is “the first page of the closing chapter on the Castro regime” and said she believes Trump will make good on his promise to revisit Obama’s Cuba policies.
“However, a tyranny led by Raúl Castro and its repressive apparatus remains in place oppressing the Cuban people,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “President-Elect Trump has pledged to roll back President Obama’s unilateral concessions to the Castro regime and it is my belief that he will keep that promise.”
Although Trump may be able to easily dismantle Obama’s efforts logistically, it may not be politically popular, especially among the business community.
“Can he do it? Yes,” Kavulich said. “But what are the repercussions?”
Kavulich warned that there might even be legal repercussions because of the deep-rooted commercial interests in the island.
Any effort to suspend or reduce flights, for example, is sure to face fierce pushback from the U.S. airline industry, which invested significant time and resources into the new flight routes.
Obama has also already authorized U.S. hotels to manage properties on the island, allowed Airbnb to offer reservations for 10,000 residences and let telecommunications companies install equipment in Cuba.
Travel advocates hope the economic benefits of Cuban trade and travel will convince Trump to leave many of Obama’s policies in place.
“Mr. Trump says the government should be run like a business, and there’s no business in the world that would continue a failed strategy for 55 years,” said Madeleine Russak, communications director for Engage Cuba. “Cuba is a growing market with tremendous investment opportunities. We’re hopeful that as a businessman, he recognizes those opportunities.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest also suggested that Trump could find it difficult to unwind the growing ties between the two nations.
“It’s just not as simple as one tweet might make it seem,” Earnest said Monday. “There are significant diplomatic, economic [and] cultural costs that will have to be accounted for if this policy is rolled back.”
Some travel advocates think Trump is more likely to take steps like closing down the embassies, refusing to nominate an ambassador and cracking down on people trying to travel under one of the 12 permissible categories, as opposed to completely halting commercial flights to Cuba.
While some had hoped Fidel Castro’s death would pave the way for a complete reversal of the détente, others think the biggest impact will be that Obama is now more hesitant to move ahead with any further Cuba regulations in his final weeks in office.
The business community has been pushing for the White House to allow Cuban financial institutions to have accounts with U.S. banks and expand the products that can be imported and exported to Cuba.
“There’s no question that the timing of Fidel’s death couldn’t be worse for the Obama administration,” Kavulich said. “The problem is, now any additional regulations will be accompanied by Fourth of July fireworks. It will be controversial by definition, even if people agree with it.”