28 Nov 2016

Cuba braces for life without Castro in face of bullish Trump

9:38 am on 28 November 2016

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to a historic visit by President Barack Obama to Havana, Cubans have known for generations that whenever the United States turns its face to Cuba, Fidel Castro would be staring right back.

Cuban revolutionary icon Fidel Castro died late on November 25, 2016 in Havana, his brother, President Raul Castro, announced on national television.

Then Cuban President Fidel Castro looks up while delivering a speech in July 2006. Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP

But the death of "El Comandante" has added to worries among Cubans that US President-elect Donald Trump will slam the door shut on nascent trade and travel ties, undoing two years of detente with the United States under Obama.

Many Cubans believe they could do with their late leader's charisma and way with words to counter Trump's bombast.

"With 'El Comandante' gone, I am a little fearful of what could happen because of Trump's way of thinking and acting," said Yaneisi Lara, a 36-year-old Havana street vendor.

"He could set back and block everything that's been going on, all the things Obama has done. And he did a lot, managing to get the US closer to Cuba," she said, admitting she would consider moving to the United States herself.

Trump has struck a very different tone from Obama, who reached an agreement two years ago with Castro's younger brother, President Raul Castro, to end half a century of hostilities.

Late in his election campaign, Trump sought to reassure Cuban-American voters in Florida that he was firm in his opposition to the Castros, and pledged that, if elected, he would close down the newly re-opened U.S. embassy in Havana.

Earlier on, in the primary contests to pick the Republican presidential nominee, Trump said he thought restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba was fine, but that Obama ought to have cut a better deal.

Now that Trump has won the presidency, it is hard to know exactly what his approach to Cuba will be.

"None of that has been decided," Trump's senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "The president-elect will make those decisions once he takes office."

However, Reince Priebus, who will be Trump's chief of staff when he takes office on 20th January, said Trump would call for more political freedoms from the Cuban government, and that if he did not get this he would roll back Obama's opening.

"There isn't going to be a one-way relationship from the United States to Cuba without some action from the Castro administration," Priebus said on "Fox News Sunday."

After the death of the 90-year-old Fidel Castro on Friday, Obama called him a "singular figure," while Trump described him as a "brutal dictator."

Castro began his career as a revolutionary by toppling a US-backed government, repelled a CIA-backed counter-revolutionary invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and faced off against President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis a year later.

During 49 years in office, he crossed swords with 10 US presidents. And while he took a lower profile after officially retiring in 2008, Castro never stopped warning Cubans that the American government was not to be trusted.

Although moving closer to the United States, Raul Castro has not given up much ground to the Obama administration in terms of liberalising Cuba's one-party political system.

Obama did not succeed in convincing Congress to lift the United States' tough economic embargo on Cuba, but he personally opposed the sanctions and used executive actions to allow more contact and commerce.

The first US commercial flight to Havana in about half a century is due to arrive on Monday.

'Polar opposite'

Trump could easily review such measures. He has included Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading advocate for maintaining a tough economic embargo, in his transition team.

Without giving any specifics, Trump said on Saturday that his administration would "do all it can" once he takes office to help increase freedom and prosperity for Cuban people after the death of Castro.

"Trump is the polar opposite of Obama," said burly Havana taxi driver Pablo Fernandez Martinez, 39, as he hustled for work.

Life in Cuba remains hard for its educated but underemployed people, but engagement with the United States has brought in more dollars. Martinez fears that could dry up in Trump's administration.

"There will probably be less tourist traffic. That will affect everyone in Cuba, and hit the economy," said Martinez, who earns $100-$120 a week driving for foreigners.

Pedro Machado, 68, is a retired engineer in marine research who now rents out rooms in his airy apartment near Havana's "Malecon" seafront. Machado worried that Trump's angry rhetoric could spell trouble.

"Trump's policies are very aggressive. We'll have to see what he actually does. But it certainly looks like bad news for Latin America and for Cuba in particular," he said.

"My generation benefited from Fidel's revolution, in terms of education, the poor were helped. Not everything was a bed of roses, but Fidel helped us," he added "The United States has acted as an empire, and that's what Trump represents. Given what he has said, the future is not looking great."

Some mourn, others celebrate

The most prominent dissident group in Cuba has cancelled its weekly protest march for the first time in 13 years following the death of its nemesis.

Cuba is now observing nine days of mourning.

The opposition group, Ladies in White, was founded in 2003 by wives and other relatives of jailed dissidents.

Its leader Berta Soler said she wanted to allow others to mourn and would not celebrate the death of another human being.

However in the area known as Little Havana in Miami Florida, large crowds have been openly celebrating Castro's death.

- Reuters

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs