The changes in Cuba may be cosmetic. The Castro family will probably continue to play a big role behind the scenes. But the packaging matters, because it provides the cover for Trump to change course.
A session of Cuba’s National Assembly began Wednesday, with a succession vote leading the meeting’s agenda. Current Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a Castro protege born after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, was named as the sole candidate for president, and the results of the assembly vote will be announced Thursday.
After nearly 60 years, spanning 12 different U.S. presidencies, the Castros will begin to fade into history.
The quiet, bloodless and ultimately bureaucratic handover is not how critics of the Castro regime assumed it would end. But it is at least a change, and Washington should embrace it despite its deficiencies.
When the Obama administration and the Castro government brokered a new diplomatic relationship in 2015, the American side was operating under the assumption that the blockade of Cuba no longer served any real purpose and hindered growing demand for private-sector trade. Obama’s overture succeeded because everyone understood that it had been decades since Cuba posed an actual risk to Americans or American interests.
Some in the Cuban American community and in Congress were outraged. They felt renewing ties meant placating a dictator. They said it was a sign of weakness.
Normalizing relations while Fidel Castro was still alive, in fact, had the opposite effect. To Cubans, Obama’s historic visit in March 2016 projected strength and confidence.
But the genius of Obama’s initiative was that it was an easy lift. He didn’t need to do much more than show up. Crowds swarmed, and his visit continues to pay dividends in the battle to win Cuban hearts and minds.
Some of that progress has been rolled back since Trump entered office and made travel to and investment in Cuba more difficult. Still, it would be difficult to completely undo the detente now.
“Our embassy is operating with only a fraction of its normal personnel during this historic political transition,” says Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and longtime proponent of improving ties with Cuba. “The down-scaling of relations has been damaging to our engagement, but there are official discussions continuing at the working level.” But he bemoans the lack of new agreements.
Cuba’s biggest liability is the one-dimensional nature of its political order. The current transition will underscore this. Trump should respond to this new beginning with an offer of increased trade.
Ideologues such as the ones who’ve been running Cuba for years have trouble reacting to new opportunities. The island is in deep debt, and its economy continues to sputter. Meanwhile, ordinary Cubans — who are mostly free to leave the island, work for private companies, buy and sell land, and have increased contact with their relatives in Florida — aspire to higher standards of living.
If any U.S. president should understand the leverage that such a situation presents, it should be this one.
The United States could use this as an opportunity to make it clear to the incoming Cuban leadership — and the people of Cuba — that we’re ready to help them to achieve a better future by increasing trade and investing in the country’s growing but tiny private-sector economy.
We’re already headed in that direction. While there are still very few U.S. multinationals operating in Cuba, private-sector business opportunities on the island have mushroomed since 2016. We should be supporting this. We should do this not to support Cuban leaders who are in an economic jam, but because it will hasten the collapse of revolutionary ideology. It will also be good for American business.
Most of the old obstacles hindering relations have been cleared away, but the nascent relationship between Washington and Havana hit a snag last year over a bizarre medical mystery that afflicted two dozen Americans affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.
In a sign of their eagerness for better relations, authorities there have done everything they can to assist U.S. investigations into the unexplained illnesses, even allowing the FBI to send teams of agents to the island to search, without obstruction, for answers.
After the issue became public, the United States withdrew more than half of its diplomats from the island and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats who were based at its embassy in Washington. That effectively cut off consular services, especially for Cubans wanting to visit the United States and for U.S. businesses with interests in Cuba. That remains the case now.
“Fortunately, there’s a level of trust that has been built up over the past several years between the governments of both countries, which I believe will sustain the relationship through this difficult period,” says Leahy. “The people of both countries want closer relations. There is no stopping it.”
Let’s hope he’s right.