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Trump and Obama offer divergent responses to death of Fidel Castro

The Guardian The Guardian 26/11/2016 Julian Borger in Washington

The first reactions of the US president and president-elect to Fidel Castro’s death were entirely neutral, though each in their own distinctive way.

Donald Trump was the first of the two to react, though the response was a four-word gut-reaction tweet a few minutes after 8am: “Fidel Castro is dead!”

A fuller response came nearly three hours later, and took the form of a full-throated condemnation of the Castro regime’s human rights abuses.

“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades,” an official statement said. “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”

Barack Obama’s statement, issued through the White House press office, came a little after 10am and was cautious and lawyerly, devoid of criticism or praise.

“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” the president said.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.

“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

The carefully calibrated, almost colourless reaction represented an implicit defence of one of Obama’s chief foreign affairs legacies, the opening to Cuba culminating in the president’s visit to Havana in March this year.

That breakthrough visit was premised on the desire for both countries to put their bitter past behind them, and Obama’s statement was aimed at the same goal.

“For nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements,” he continued.

Fidel Castro © Reuters Fidel Castro “During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends – bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity.

“This engagement includes the contributions of Cuban Americans, who have done so much for our country and who care deeply about their loved ones in Cuba.”

Obama engineered his Cuban breakthrough with Raúl Castro and had no relationship with the Cuban president’s ailing brother, who remained suspicious of the US leader’s overtures to the end.

The day after the relaxation of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, Fidel Castro devoted his regular newspaper column to the anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion orchestrated by the CIA, warning his fellow Cubans not to forget.

In his statement, Obama observed that Cubans would use the occasion to “recall the past and also look to the future”.

“As they do,” he added, “the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, echoed Obama’s noncommittal tone, extending condolences and expressing an “earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new & better future”.

Members of the Cuban community of Miami celebrate the death of former president Fidel Castro, in the Little Havana neighborhood. © EPA Members of the Cuban community of Miami celebrate the death of former president Fidel Castro, in the Little Havana neighborhood. Trump’s reaction and the wider Republican response highlighted the fact that political repression had outlived Fidel Castro in Cuba and served as a reminder that the relaxation of the embargo will be one of a long list of Obama decisions that will come under hostile scrutiny, review and possible repeal once the new administration takes over on 20 January.

“While Cuba remains a totalitarian island,” the Trump statement said, “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.

“Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American and onetime Republican presidential candidate from Florida, where the news was greeted by many as a cause for celebration, said: “Fidel Castro seized power promising to bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but his communist regime turned it into an impoverished island prison.

“Over six decades, millions of Cubans were forced to flee their own country, and those accused of opposing the regime were routinely jailed and even killed.

“Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.

“And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.

“The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, also put the onus on the Raúl Castro regime to make radical political changes in the wake of Fidel’s death, although he made no explicit threat of renewed sanctions.

“While Fidel Castro is gone, sadly the oppression that was the hallmark of his era is not,” McConnell said in a statement.

“It is my hope that the Cuban regime will use this opportunity to turn the page for the good of the Cuban people and for all those living in the Americas. Freedom and democracy are long overdue in Cuba.”

House speaker Paul Ryan and the Texas senator Ted Cruz, another former presidential candidate with Cuban roots, also issued statements that condemned the nature of Castro’s rule.

The response of Jimmy Carter, one of only two US presidents to meet Castro while he was Cuban leader, was striking for its wistful and affectionate tone.

“Rosalyn and I share our sympathies with the Castro family and the Cuban people on the death of Fidel Castro,” Carter said. “We remember fondly our visits with him in Cuba and his love of his country. We wish the Cuban citizens peace and prosperity in the years ahead.”

The remarks drew a storm of angry Twitter ripostes from Republicans and Democrats alike, for their failure to make any references to the abuses of the Castro regime.

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