New uncertainties ahead for Cuba
On November 28, the US President-elect,Donald Trump said that ‘if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for theCuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminatedeal’.
His tweet, which used language seeminglydesigned to drive a wedge between Cuba and the US and end President Obama’spolicy of détente, followed the death of Fidel Castro, the former President ofCuba, who passed away on November 25 at the age of 90.
While Mr Trump did not specify what heintends doing, or what deal he was referring to, the US media reported that hisaides said that he would, as promised during his campaign, demand the releaseof political prisoners held in Cuba, and push the government to allow morereligious and economic freedoms.
Cuba, however, has no history of respondingto demands or threats, so it appears likely that Mr Trump’s suggestion and hisseeming lack of respect, will be robustly rejected at some time after theperiod of mourning for the country’s former leader.
For most Cubans, Dr Castro’s death marks theend of an era and a time of genuine sadness. Widely admired at home, he led arebel army to victory in Cuba in at the age of 32 over a US backeddictatorship, then went on to deliver a range of social achievements for Cuba’spoor, contributed decisively to ending colonialism in Southern Africa, anddefied the power of 10 US presidents, despite the country’s smallness.
Although President Castro’s passing is widelyexpected to enable greater diversity of opinion to emerge within the Cubanleadership, its coincidence with uncertainty about future relations with the USmakes the pace at which this might happen now much less certain. The incomingadministration’s apparent interest in halting détente and substituting a transactionalrelationship that ignores Cuban sovereignty, suggest that the most likely Cubanresponse will be a consolidation of conservative thinking.
Dr Castro’s death also raises longer termissues about who in future will command high levels of respect and moralauthority within the government and the country when, as he has indicated, RaulCastro steps down from Government in 2018, and hands over the management of thecountry and the process of change to the next generation.
For the Caribbean too, the issue now is whatlies ahead?
In the region, all governments whether of thecentre right or centre left paid tribute to the special role that Cuba and itsformer President had played in the region and internationally.
Andrew Holness, Jamaica’s Prime Ministercaught the mood when he said “He will go down in the annals of history as oneof the leaders who, though coming from a Caribbean island developing State, hashad the greatest impact on world history”. “Many Jamaicans still vividlyremember his visits to Jamaica and his passionate speeches in defence of theright to self-determination.” Mr Holness also noted that Cuba was a leadingchampion of strong south-south cooperation, with excellent education and healthsystems that had become an outstanding model for the world.
But as the tributes fade, nations acrossLatin America and the Caribbean have begun to consider the possibility that in2017 Cuba may become a hemispheric issue again, and as one Latin Americandiplomat put it, the region may have to demonstrate to Washington why includingCuba in ‘the family of the Americas’ has value. Put less diplomatically thisseems to mean that if the US is not to lose the broad-based support thatPresident Obama has created across the hemisphere, Latin America and theCaribbean will have to respond.
Any reversal of US policy on Cuba may alsochange the nature of Canada’s close if low key engagement. While both countriesappeared cautious during a recent visit to Havana by the Canadian PrimeMinister, Justin Trudeau, given Mr Trump’s election, Canada may see asattractive the possibility of playing a more public role in the Americas if US-Cubarelations deteriorate.
In the US itself, there is also uncertaintyabout what happens next in relation to the country’s hoped for economic role inCuba and the future for areas in which functional co-operation has developed ata government to government level on issues from security to maritimedelimitation.
Although, Josh Earnest, the White House presssecretary, has suggested that Mr Trump would have a hard time reversing apolicy that has yielded US investments, a process he said that would be “muchmore complicated than just the stroke of a pen”, others are not so sure.
Already large companies in the US, and wellas in other parts of the world, have begun to weigh the implications, with USgroups that have been playing a growing economic role in Cuba in areas likeaviation, hotels, telecommunications and food exports, preparing to lobby forthe gains they say they have made.
Companies in Europe also point out that ifPresident Trump turns back the clock, all he will be doing is handing advantageto those countries and companies freed by détente to do deals on debt,investment, and trade. In this context, they suggest that the EU-Cuba frameworkPolitical Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement that is to be signed with Europeon December 12 will now be particularly significant, as will be the increasedeconomic interest shown in recent months by countries like Japan and China.
While it remains to be seen whether theideologs on Cuba in the new US administration and in Congress pursue atransactional relationship with Havana, the most likely outcome of recentstatements would seem to be a Cuba-led freeze in relations, significantly lessfuture bilateral contact, and a more aggressive approach by the US Treasury tothird country economic relations.
While all of this is of interest in the widerworld, the coincidence of Fidel Castro’s passing, a Trump White House, and thenear collapse of the Venezuelan economy, suggest that a bigger and moreimmediate challenge may be restoring the confidence of the Cuban people, to saynothing of the considerable energy that will now be required to find waysbeyond exhortation to rekindle the optimism of the last two years.
What Mr Trump’s pronouncements on Cubasuggest, at the very least, is a period of uncertainty for a country wherethere is growing generational pressure for new socialist thinking about itsfuture management.
David Jessop is a consultant to the CaribbeanCouncil and can be contacted at
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