Under the Castro regime in Cuba, Sebastian Arcos spent a year of his life in prison for trying to escape the grip of communism.
But the death of Fidel Castro on Friday did not give Arcos immediate relief, because the regime that altered the course of his life remains in power.
“I have become old and cynical, so I was not particularly happy when he died—I was not sad either,” said Arcos, who spent the first 30 years of his life in Cuba before coming to Miami, where he is now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
“Unquestionably, the world is a better place today without Fidel Castro,” Arcos added in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“More importantly, even if I don’t have any hope the regime will change in the short term, as a friend said to me yesterday, nothing changes and everything changes. Nothing changes because in the short term, Raul Castro [Fidel’s brother and Cuba’s president] remains firmly in control. But everything changes because the paramount leader of the Cuban Revolution has died, and when they bury him, they will bury the Cuban Revolution with him.”
Arcos, like many Cuban-Americans and others with a stake in Cuba’s future, views Fidel Castro’s death as an inflection point in how the U.S. engages with the Communist-ruled island.
Supporters of President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba hope that Fidel Castro’s death will hasten the rapprochement of the two countries. But skeptics like Arcos say Fidel Castro’s death, and the attention it is drawing, will expose the human rights abuses and oppression that he says has continued under Raul Castro’s leadership, providing an opportunity for the next U.S. administration to press harder for change.
“President-elect Donald Trump made a campaign promise here in Miami, and he has to find a way to fulfill that campaign promise,” Arcos said.
Trump has sent mixed signals on his potential Cuba policy.
During a campaign event in Miami in September, Trump accused the Obama administration of making “concessions” to Cuba and he said he would reverse the president’s actions, many made by executive authority, unless “the Castro regime meets our demands.”
Monday, Trump took to Twitter to clarify his policy, writing: “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.”
But Trump also spoke positively of Obama’s policy early in his campaign, saying restarting diplomatic relations with Cuba was “fine.”
Obama’s Dramatic Change
In December of 2014, Obama announced a renewal of diplomatic ties with Cuba that included a loosening of decades-old restrictions on travel, trade, investment, and remittances.
Within a year, the countries reopened their embassies.
It is now easier for Americans to visit Cuba and send money and goods there, and also for American businesses to establish a presence on the island. Obama recently used executive action to expand the legal importation of Cuban cigars and rum by Americans who visit the island.
Hundreds of commercial flights go to and from the island weekly, with U.S. airlines scheduled to join this week.
Obama could not end the trade embargo against Cuba. Only Congress can do that.
Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of #CubaNow, an advocacy group that supports Obama’s policy change, said that the opening to Cuba has encouraged private industry and promoted free expression from reform-minded citizens.
“It would be a grave mistake to pull back now,” Herrero told The Daily Signal in an interview. “By demanding concessions, all you are doing is empowering the regime and enabling them to go to reformers on the island and say, ‘See, they [the U.S.] are trying to govern us already.’ That’s why we need to remain strong. Let’s not give more oxygen to those who want to continue fighting the Cold War forever.”
If Trump moves forward with changing Obama’s Cuba policy, he will find influential allies in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., told The Daily Signal that he and other Cuban-American Republicans in Congress are “so encouraged” by Trump’s public statements regarding Cuba.
He said he would push for Trump to “eliminate” all of Obama’s actions unless Cuba meets certain conditions, including freeing all political prisoners “without exception,” allowing for “basic freedoms,” and starting the process “toward multiparty elections.”
“Let’s help the internal opposition,” Diaz-Balart said. “Let’s stand with them, and encourage and legitimize them, as opposed to what Obama has done to legitimize the dictatorship that oppresses those folks. This is a very important opportunity for the president-elect to do an awful lot of good for the prospects of a free Cuba.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who supports Obama’s policy change, is more circumspect about radically shifting course.
“I am hopeful he [Trump] will come out on the side of his earlier statements that were pro-engagement and question the validity of a 50-year policy that has not brought about change,” Sanford told The Daily Signal in an interview. “I have no problem with the idea of asking for more. If one can come up with a better deal, we should. What I would hope not to see is the perfect being the enemy of the good. Wherever you are in the debate, people are foreseeing change in Cuba. The question is how do we get there.”
Eric Hershberg, the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, said Trump has the authority to walk back much of Obama’s Cuba policy.
He argues that in this uncertain period after Fidel Castro’s death, and the election of Trump as U.S. president, Raul Castro and his communist regime may be more tempted to act out in the short term.
“Fidel leaving the scene may accentuate the regime’s message to the Americans that we are still here and will act in our interests, not yours,” Hershberg said. “The Cubans aren’t going to give any concessions at all. The Cubans have never gave concessions since the revolution and they won’t start now.”