WASHINGTON – Donald Trump started to put his stamp on a more muscular foreign policy Saturday with a toughly worded statement following the death of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The president-elect eschewed the diplomat-speak of President Barack Obama, who offered his condolences to the Castro family in an anodyne statement. Instead, Trump tore into the newly deceased dictator in perhaps the clearest example since this month’s election of the two men’s sharply different worldviews.
Castro, who established a communist regime in Cuba that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, inspired revolutionary movements and brought two superpowers close to nuclear war before stepping down after 49 years in power, died late Friday night local time. He was 90. His funeral will be held Dec. 4.
Crowds of exiled Cubans and their supporters gathered on the streets of Miami to celebrate the passing of a sometimes unyielding ruler who divided families and ruled with an iron fist. Havana, meanwhile, remained quiet, and in both countries it was unclear how Castro’s death will impact the detente that has developed in the past two years.
Trump said weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election that Obama has propped up Cuba economically and politically “in exchange for nothing,” and said that if elected he wanted to cut a better deal both for the Cuban people and the U.S.
Trump’s reaction started early Saturday with a seemingly celebratory tweet — “Fidel Castro is dead!” — to his 16 million Twitter followers.
A formal statement followed, blasting Castro. “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights,” Trump said.
Still, Trump didn’t repeat a vow made during the campaign to reverse Obama’s normalization process, saying that his administration will “do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”
It is unclear what that means in terms of potential policy, however, and the Trump campaign didn’t offer any additional clarity.
“While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve,” Trump said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who advocates a continued tough anti-Cuba policy, said Obama’s statement was “pathetic.” “No mention of thousands he killed & imprisoned,” Rubio said on Twitter. The Republican told Fox News he hoped the administration would not send anyone to Castro’s funeral.
Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of Cuban descent, were to appear on morning political talk shows Sunday to discuss the outlook for U.S. policy.
Trump, meanwhile, said during the presidential campaign that he disagreed with Obama’s strategy, which so far has included the two nations reopening their respective embassies after more than 50 years.
Obama last month lifted restrictions on importing Cuban cigars to the U.S. for personal use, part of the sixth round of eased sanctions since December 2014. U.S. cruise ships can now dock in Cuba, and U.S. airlines can fly to the island.
The president visited Havana in March, the first sitting U.S. president to visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said.
“The United States should not prop up the Cuban regime economically and politically, as President Obama has done and Hillary Clinton would continue to do, in exchange for nothing,” Trump said in Miami on Oct. 25.
He told CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede last month that he would wait before appointing an ambassador but was willing to negotiate with Cuba in the meantime. “We can wait a little bit longer and get the kind of agreement we want,” Trump said.
But the property developer turned politician has said repeatedly that he would like to cut a deal.
“I’m all for Cuba opening it up,” he told Fox News in January. “But I do think — I do think, if it’s gonna open up, we should make at least a reasonably sane deal, not the deal that we’re making right now.”
Some, however, hope Castro’s death could build momentum for lifting the embargo, something that has bipartisan support in Congress, particularly from lawmakers who represent export-heavy states keen to sell goods to the island nation’s 11 million people.
“We need a new chapter here,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who has introduced bipartisan legislation to lift the embargo.
Klobuchar said she hopes Trump now takes a new look at the issue. “For a long time U.S.-Cuban policy hasn’t been based on reason, it’s been based on the ghosts of the past,” said Klobuchar. “It’s been 50-some years of a failed policy on both sides. It’s time to change it.”
But while the administration has talked up its efforts to open up Cuba, the country remains under the control of President Raul Castro, 85, Fidel’s brother, with sharply limited freedoms for its people.
Jorge Perez, a billionaire real state developer, said the elder Castro hasn’t had real power in the last couple of years and that his brother has seemed more willing to promote relations with the U.S.
“But it seems that every time a forward step is taken, more restrictions seem to be applied,” Perez said. “The high hopes from Obama’s visit have not materialized in either increased freedoms or trade. With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, I would have thought that Cuba would have moved to open the economy to foreign investments, particularly from the U.S. This has not happened in any meaningful way.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, standing with Cuban exiles Saturday in Union City, New Jersey, said Cuba is still ruled “with an iron fist” by Raul Castro. Menendez, a Democrat, has been a leading critic of Obama’s policy, saying repression has soared and more are seeking to leave Cuba.
Like Menendez, Rubio has been a key part of the opposition among lawmakers to lifting the embargo. He won re-election to the Senate this month after being one of more than a dozen Republicans beaten by Trump in the party’s primary.
Menendez, sounding somewhat like Trump, said the U.S. needs “to stop the economic lifeline the Obama administration has given the Castro regime.” Instead it must demand free elections, a free press and a release of political prisoners before Cuba can have a relationship with the United States, he said. “Raul Castro has more blood on his hands than Fidel did.”
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