Fidel Castro may not have lived to antagonise a 12th US president, but in death the legendary revolutionary still managed to expose differences between president Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump.
While Castro lost political relevance in the decade since he handed over power, his passing pushes relations between the United States and Cuba to the top of Trump's foreign policy in-tray 53 days before he takes office.
The statements by Obama and Trump on the death of the 90-year-old former Cuban leader exposed sharp differences between the outgoing and incoming administrations. Obama offered condolences, Trump condemnation.
Avoiding an appraisal on the life of a deeply divisive political and oppressive figure, Obama said: “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
The incoming US president was not so diplomatic. Two hours after tweeting “Fidel Castro is dead!” Trump’s presidential transition team delivered a more considered if unsparing assessment of the Cuban rebel leader.
“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights,” read the president-elect’s statement.
The dissonant chord their statements struck does not necessarily spell the end of Obama’s rapprochement with the communist state, one of the landmark foreign-policy achievements of his eight-year presidency.
Obama spoke about how Castro’s passing would also lead to Cubans to “look to the future” and how they “must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America”.
Trump’s statement looked forward too. “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,” he said.
Still, the president-in-waiting maintained a confrontational stance, thanking Cuban-Americans who backed his presidential bid including veterans of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion against Castro in 1961.
Trump's vacillating positions are difficult to pin down most of the time given how they are usually based around the particular audience he speaks to at any one time, and his stance on Cuba is no different. While critical of Obama's detente with Havana, he has not ruled out continuing the renewed relationship, though Castro's death may force this political chameleon to pick a more pronounced colour as he transitions to power.
Ties with Havana
In September 2015, Trump broke with other Republicans running for the presidency, including US senator
of Florida – who is of Cuban parentage – by declaring that he was “fine” with Obama’s 2014 re-establishment of ties with Havana but felt that the US “should have made a better deal”.
Only in the latter stages of the campaign, when he needed to win Florida, home to the largest population of Cuban-Americans in the country, did Trump change his tune. He threatened to break off the recently resumed diplomatic relations, saying that he would do “whatever you have to do to get a strong agreement”.
His willingness to broker deals with Cuba is consistent with his track record in business. He was accused during the campaign of violating the US-Cuban trade embargo in 1998 by sending associates to explore business opportunities in Cuba, and he sent associates there again in 2012 and 2013 to investigate the possibility of opening a golf resort. Trump did not deny that meetings had taken place.
Castro’s funeral next Sunday falls in the politically sensitive transition period between Obama and Trump. Sending a US representative may be good for diplomatic relations but it could stoke tensions at home ahead of Trump taking power. Rubio has urged the Obama administration not to dispatch anyone to Castro’s funeral, saying that they would be “sending someone to the funeral of a man who ordered the execution of Americans”.
, the former US House of Representatives speaker who is tipped for a top role in Trump’s administration, echoed the Florida senator’s sentiments.
In the medium term, the death of Castro, who remained a touchline sceptic of the reconciliation brokered by his brother president Raul Castro with "the empire", may create more leeway for Trump to renegotiate the revived US-Cuban economic arrangements as he promised during the campaign.
"It lowers a little bit the temperature in the exile community in the US because for all these 50-plus years, their ire very much obsessively focused on the powerful, all-consuming figure of Fidel Castro," said Richard Feinberg, a former White House adviser to president Bill Clinton on Cuba and Latin America policy.
“On the island if you adhere to the theory, widely held, that the mere presence of Fidel was a brake on reform, then the removal of that figure potentially strengthens the hand of pro-reform figures.”
Once the political heat around Castro’s funeral dissipates, a dealmaking president Trump may spy opportunity again.