Almost simultaneously with the last breath of Fidel Castro, the incoming president of the United States has indicated the basis of his attitude to the Cuban regime by announcing (or rather, tweeting) that “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate the deal”. And naturally, he was making reference to the conduct and outcome of the discussions initiated by now-outgoing president Barack Obama in 2014, during his visit to Cuba, when it appeared that a rapprochement in relations between the two countries was emerging.
There can, of course be little doubt that the visit of Obama did not suggest a normalizing of relations without certain American pre-conditions, and that the US administration has continued to monitor the internal evolution – however slim and slow ‒ of the functioning of Cuban political system. And there can be little doubt too, that the Obama administration did not, in initiating discussion of an evolution of the Cuban political system, expect that steps towards any amendment of that system would come overnight.
Further we might surmise that the Cuban government, knowing the nature of its own political arrangements, will hardly have given President Obama assurances of any immediate and substantial changes to the regime that might be clearly visible to the rest of the world. However, it is to be assumed that the President will have given the Cuban President indications of what the United States, and presumably Western allies, would regard as acceptable within the terms of the West’s main principles of the operation of a democratic or liberal government.
President-elect Trump’s present Chief of Staff and advisor Reince Priebus while the modalities of a Trump government are being established, has however indicated the dimensions of acceptable government operations. He has focused on new Cuban approaches to the observance of human rights, a movement towards democracy as recognizable by the American government, and indications of movement towards a free market economy, clearly tall orders for Raul Castro, himself not in the springtime of political life. And indeed, the advisor summed up the incoming government’s sentiment by insisting that it requires a “better deal” for initiating any substantial steps towards rapprochement between the Trump government and the Cuban regime.
We can assume that the President-elect represents the views of a large number of Americans, and especially the loudly-protesting Cuban-Americans who came out to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. But he will be aware that President Obama will hardly have gone to Cuba if the regime there did not have a prior understanding of the rationale for his visit, a rationale which would obviously have been based on Obama’s own understanding of prevailing American sentiment ‒ but at the same time a cognizance of sentiment in Cuba, even as the regime there seeks to bring the Cuban economy more in line with the nature of the economies geographically proximate to his country.
President-elect Trump’s warning of a termination of the bases of such understandings as will have been arrived between Obama and Raul Castro – a warning indicated in his demand for a “better deal” between his incoming government and the Cuban government, will hardly have been taken by Raul Castro as an immediate threat to his country. Castro will have watched the contretemps between then candidate Trump and the Mexican government in the middle of his election campaign, as will the major countries of Latin America. And in that context he will surely have primed himself and his government for similar threats and pressures.
It can be expected that President Obama, even in his oncoming status of former president, could well be constrained, in the circumstances of a worsening relationship between Cuba and a United States during the Trump presidency, to enlighten the American people on the nature of the discussions that he had with Raul Castro. The proximity of his visit to the campaign, and presidential elections appears to have constrained a wider discussion on the objectives of his government.
But it would not be surprising if for the present at least, Cuba is not a substantial issue in the context of the present political goings-on in the American political arena, especially as the regime has, it would appear for some time now, understood the primacy of economic reorganization and survival in present-day Cuba. And in any case, as far as the hemisphere is concerned, the American people will have their eyes in the post-inauguration period towards Trump’s policy towards Mexico.