The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fidel Castro’s death won’t reshape Cuba. Trump’s presidency might.

Will he reverse Obama's smart policies?

The flag rose over the Cuban Embassy in Washington last month. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

At 12:33 a.m. my phone sings a tritone text message alert. “Fidel dead,” the first one reads, a minimalist headline.

I flip on the TV. It’s all so predictable: the calls to Miami journalists, camera shots of a celebratory march on Calle Ocho, montaged flashbacks of the revolutionary’s finger-wagging speeches. As usual, news on Cuba is focused on the past.

But many on the island are wondering what happens next. Their future economic progress that feels more fickle now that Donald Trump is the U.S. president-elect.

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Since President Obama loosened travel restrictions, flights are taking off from several major U.S. cities, the amount of Americans visiting the island has risen by 50 percent, and an unlimited supply of rum and cigars can fly home with them. In May, for the first time ever, a cruise ship from the United States docked in Havana Harbor, where 118 years earlier the sinking of the USS Maine catapulted Americans into Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. Today, a search for lodging on the Caribbean island through Airbnb yields more than 300 results, private homes opened up to foreigners for cultural and monetary exchange.

With Congress in control of the embargo’s future, relations between the two countries rely on who sits in the Oval Office. Will it be Trump the businessman, looking out for the financial interests of his country; Trump the Republican nominee, denouncing communist atrocities and refusing to concede further benefits to the leftist government; or Trump the Twitter troll, hollering dictations taken by a secretary who lets us know his plan on Cuba will be fantastic, wonderful, the best we’ve ever seen?

According to the New York Times, Trump once wrote that “investment in Cuba would directly subsidize the oppression of the Cuban people,” in line with the Republican argument for keeping the embargo intact. He has flip-flopped on the issue, saying the changing diplomatic relations were “fine” during the primaries and then assuring a crowd in Miami shortly before Election Day that he would reverse Obama’s executive orders “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” The president-elect also claimed that Cubans get “nothing” from the opening of relations, demonstrating he doesn’t understand the significance of a Cuban waving an American flag on the streets of Havana without fear of persecution. But it seems unlikely that Trump will reverse the economic progress Obama set in motion. Considering the Trump company’s alleged attempt at investing in the island in 1998 and all the travel and real estate opportunities that remain, it would be nonsensical for him to close them off for himself and his companies.

Perhaps he will focus instead on immigration. He could be drawing up plans to build a wall in the Florida Straits, or to reverse the famous “wet foot, dry foot” policy enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Who knows?

Though of one thing I am certain: Fidel Castro is now a relic of the past. Cuba’s communist government will mourn him, erect a statue in his honor and dedicate a plaza in his name for the contributions he made to the revolution. And we won’t be waiting until the Malecón dries — which is to say forever — to see how the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election changes the course of U.S.-Cuban relations.