In Miami, the city where candidates built their careers on stridently resisting the Cuban dictatorship, Fidel Castro’s death marked the end of a political era — and, Cuban-American members of Congress hoped, the start of a new one, with reinvigorated support for a hard-line policy under President-elect Donald Trump.
Republican politicians, some of them still uneasy about a Trump presidency, confidently declared Saturday that his incoming administration, set to begin less than two months after Castro’s unexpected demise, represents the best hope for the Cuban opposition — assuming Trump fulfills his campaign promise to sever the Cuba ties re-established by President Barack Obama.
“President-elect Trump has correctly stated that Obama’s overtures to the Castro regime were one-sided and only benefited the Cuban regime,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who wrote in Jeb Bush’s name for president instead of voting for Trump.
“I hope that the new administration, under the leadership of President Trump, seizes this moment as an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to the Cuban people that it will pressure the Castro regime by rolling back these executive actions of the Obama administration.”
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Trump’s candidacy had managed to pull together a majority of Cuban-American voters, according to exit polls — but not necessarily their elected leaders, who denounced Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants, especially Hispanics, and reported business interest in Cuba. Castro’s death late Friday appeared to do more to consolidate his standing among Miami’s Cuban-American political establishment than anything he said during the campaign.
On Saturday, Trump returned a telephone call from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Cuban-American Republican who knows Trump personally but voted for his presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.
“The President-elect expressed his support for and solidarity with the Cuban-American community,” Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said.
Trump also spoke to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, according to a statement from the governor. “Today’s news should usher in an era of freedom, peace and human dignity for everyone in Cuba, and the state of Florida stands ready to assist in that mission,” Scott said.
Trump was swift to publicly condemn Castro, slamming him in a statement as “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,” said Trump, who spent the weekend at Mar-A-Lago, his Palm Beach estate. “I join the many Cuban Americans who supported me so greatly in the presidential campaign, including the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association that endorsed me, with the hope of one day soon seeing a free Cuba.”
Trump’s reaction — after a morning tweet proclaiming “Fidel Castro is dead!” — sounded far different from Obama’s, which offered condolences to Castro’s family and noted only that “for nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements.”
“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” Obama 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.”
Obama’s statement prompted immediate rebuke from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who called the response “pathetic.”
“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,” Rubio said in a statement. “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”
Still, smiles abounded Saturday morning as Ros-Lehtinen and U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo — and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who codified the trade embargo against Cuba into U.S. law and repeatedly referred to Castro as “the brain of evil” — gathered in Ros-Lehtinen’s South Miami office, besieged by news crews who were offered an assortment of Cuban pastelitos and coladas on their way in the door.
Their staffs had prepared for this moment for years, writing and rewriting drafts of their statements, with a wary eye on the false alarms about Castro’s health that periodically roiled the exile community. His death, coming on Thanksgiving weekend, caught key aides out of pocket, scrambling to travel to Miami and put finishing touches on news releases.
“The three amigos are together again!” a buoyant, guayabera-clad Ros-Lehtinen quipped, referring to herself and the Diaz-Balart brothers, pillars of the anti-Castro movement in Congress. “Is it OK if we start a couple of minutes early?”
“A Cuban press conference starting early?” Curbelo cut in. “That’s a historic day!”
The current and former members of Congress argued that only reverting to the old U.S. policy of isolating Cuba would undermine Raúl Castro’s regime. They rejected any suggestion that Fidel Castro’s death might instead give the U.S. an opening to push for more — not fewer — economic reforms on the island.
“The strategy has always been the same: to support the Cuban people and avoid financing the regime that oppresses the Cuban people,” said Mario Diaz-Balart, who ultimately voted for Trump, despite expressing some reservations about his lack of specific policies. “Unfortunately, over the last two years under President Obama, he’s done everything possible to finance the Castro family’s monopolies.”
Curbelo, the youngest of the representatives who said he voted for a third-party presidential candidate he declined to name, mentioned his grandfather, a former Cuban political prisoner, and his great uncle, whom he said was executed by the Cuban regime without trial.
“Obviously, today a major psychological weight has been lifted from all Cubans, but especially those freedom fighters,” Curbelo said. He said he was “hopeful” Castro’s death would be a catalyst for change.
But, Curbelo warned: “Only the Cuban people can free Cuba.”