Fabiola Santiago

A threatening Trump wants ‘a better deal,’ but knee-jerk moves won’t transform a post-Fidel Cuba

Military cadets hold pictures of Fidel Castro during a rally at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Military cadets hold pictures of Fidel Castro during a rally at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. AP

It’s too soon for major policy pronouncements on a post-Fidel Cuba.

Yet President-elect Donald Trump, in the beginning stages of building his administration, has already made a major announcement.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump said in an early Monday morning tweet.

And so the Cuba issue — at a crucial, historic moment — enters the parallel universe of Trumplandia, the simpleton territory where world affairs boil down to what kind of deal you make. Tweeting is the first move. God help us on both shores.

On the Cuban side, there’s a state-imposed period of mourning for Fidel Castro, nine days that curiously coincide with the Santeria religion practice Castro was said to embrace. The focus is on a Revolution Square mournful tribute in Havana and an island-wide funeral procession to aggrandize the legacy of the guerrillero and “maxium leader” of the Cuban Revolution.

His ashes will travel all the way to Santiago to rest near Jose Martí so that Castro can enjoy the eternal company of a real hero, a man of letters exiled in the United States who came home to die fighting for independence on the battleground.

A throng of international media is in Cuba to cover the momentous occasion, including a contingent from Miami, and key dissidents have been rounded up or told to stay indoors with warnings that they are being watched.

That Castro’s Latin American courtesans are attending his services is no surprise. What else can be expected of leaders who aspire to stay in power as long as Castro, most notably Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales? But what is King Juan Carlos of Spain doing there? A Spanish delegation, like the small one President Obama is sending, would’ve sufficed to cover the demands of diplomatic protocol. Perhaps the colonial touch was needed, but more likely, the European Union and others who either helped broker or paved the way for the renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations are concerned.

Fidel Castro’s death presents uncharted opportunity to engage Raúl Castro on the thorny issues of human rights, economic reform and free elections without the specter of big brother’s presence. It’s no secret that there’s a power struggle in Cuba between reformers and hard-liners. When Raúl Castro’s small reforms — fueled by pressure from dissidents — seemed to be gaining an unstoppable momentum with Obama’s policy of engagement, Fidel was trotted out as a kind of Greek chorus to return Cuba to the dark ages.

Fidel Castro is gone. Question is: Will Trump’s threat to “terminate” Obama’s opening help or hinder change in Cuba?

It’s too early for pronouncements, but Trump should listen to a wide range of people in the Cuban-American community — and inside Cuba.

This, too, is an opportunity for exiles to act smarter than we have in the past. Isolation didn’t achieve a thing for 50 some years. Retrenching is not the way to go forward. The Cuban people showed their hope and enthusiasm in unprecedented ways when President Obama announced the shift in U.S. policy from détente to rapprochement in 2014. There’s room — and I would argue, a dire need — for some reassessment of strategies, and certainly better negotiation on human-rights issues.

But for Trump and his administration to retrench and play the bully would fit right into Raúl Castro’s hands. Raúl would like nothing more than to end engagement. It opened up possibilities for the Cuban people, exposed them to Americans and information. Raúl became very afraid of engagement and started to push back after Obama, more popular on the island than the Castro brothers, spoke to the Cuban people live on television about democratic values and human rights.

Raúl trotted out Fidel then to pen a letter of rejection to “Brother Obama.” He’s now coaxing people across the island to sign an oath pledging to uphold Fidel Castro’s vision of the revolution.

That’s not a sign of strength, but of weakness.

What should the exile role be?

To support the Cuban people in moving forward, to be shield and voice for dissidents and their struggle for change. It’s a moment for us to process our own experience, give testimony with our own truth, and balance the militant view coming from Cuba, and the posthumous aggrandizement of a dictator.

Fidel Castro is gone.

What President Obama launched and what he inspired during his visit to Havana shouldn’t be erasable by the caprice and knee-jerk reaction of our newly elected Tweeter-in-Chief.

Threatening Cuba publicly to score points in Miami has never changed a thing.