With his legacy in mind, President Obama has used the final months of his administration trying to ensure that his historic reopening of U.S. relations with Cuba could not be easily reversed.
He ended a Cold War animosity that had begun before he was born and established unprecedented diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with a Communist-ruled island long off-limits to most U.S. citizens.
President-elect Donald Trump had previously called for a reversal of Obama’s approach to Cuba, but his intentions now are unclear. And the death late Friday of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — who Trump called a “brutal dictator” in a statement Saturday - may hand the incoming administration a politically acceptable way to keep some of Obama’s changes in place.
Trump may have signaled a shift in his hard-line stance when he said it was his “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.”
As a candidate, Trump variously threatened to scuttle Obama’s changes — especially when he was campaigning among anti-Castro Cuban immigrants in Florida — or to seek what he calls a better deal.
The question is, as Cuba expert William LeoGrande at American University in Washington put it: Will Cuba policy meet Trump the hard-liner or Trump the deal-maker?
Trump’s selection of a secretary of State, still very much up in the air and reportedly roiled by disagreement within the transition team, may give a sense of how much he will try to change policy toward Cuba.
Some reversals, from a legal and technical standpoint, would be easy. Obama enacted many of the new measures through executive authority and once he’s in the White House, Trump can overturn those with his signature.
Obama recently used executive action, for example, to expand the legal importation of Cuban cigars and rum by U.S. citizens who visit the island. Obama also vastly increased the number of Americans who can visit, and U.S. businesses that can work on the island.
But there is also pressure from U.S. agriculture and tourism sectors to continue with the more relaxed regimen for doing business. With flights and cruise ships pouring into Cuba daily, the country is proving a wildly fertile new market.
Castro’s brother Raul, the current president, is also a communist and an old-school military man. But Raul, 85, has already said he will step down in 2018, so Trump presumably won't have to deal with him for very long after he enters the White House.
Whatever direction Trump chooses, he is unlikely to try to reimpose the complete diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba even if he revokes some of Obama’s executive actions.
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