Castro’s death fuels uncertainty at home and abroad
US policy of rapprochement towards Cuba questioned under Trump presidency
Marc Frank in Havana and John Paul Rathbone in New York
In Miami, there was jubilant celebration over Fidel Castro’s death; in
Havana, shock and disbelief; and around Washington uncertainty over how
or if US president-elect Donald Trump might re-shape Barack Obama’s
policy of rapprochement towards Cuba.
In La Tropical nightclub in Havana, a salsa band suddenly stopped
playing on Friday night when the news of Castro’s death became public.
An announcer came on stage and said simply: “Force majeure. We have to
suspend the activities. Fidel Castro has died.”
“There was no audible response. Just quiet. Any Cuban in the audience
younger than me has never known any other reality,” said Ned Sublette,
the 65-year old US jazz critic and author of a history of Cuban music.
“I stood there with my jaw open; a woman came up to me and pushed it shut.”
By contrast, in Miami, home to most of the US’s 2m strong Cuban-American
exile community, there was noisy jubilation. Margarita Fernández, a
university student, was at home when she heard the news late on Friday.
She rushed down the stairs and into Calle 8, the heartland of Miami’s
Cuban community, where a programmed Friday street party was already
“There was hugging, celebrating, hooting of horns, everyone — young and
old — were whopping it up,” she said. “It was incredible, there was an
Similar scenes were repeated around Miami as news of Castro’s death
spread. Meanwhile, on Saturday morning, thousands of miles away in
Madrid, pro- and anti-Fidel Castro groups scuffled outside the Cuban
embassy, witnesses said.
Castro’s death comes as no surprise. Aged 90, he was rarely seen in
public and, when he did appear, it was only briefly and looking weak and
infirm. Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, 85, formally took over the reins
of power in 2008 as president, and his government has long planned for
As Saturday dawned in Cuba, there was no opposition activity reported on
the streets, nor any visible sign of increased state presence — unless
you count the carpenters building a stage in Revolution Square for a
memorial service scheduled for Tuesday.
But state-run media poured forth endless tributes — including the start
of nine days of mourning; the sale of alcohol was banned; and community
organisations linked to the Communist party, such as the Woman’s
Federation, held rallies where chants of “Viva Fidel” rang out weakly.
“Cuba became a country of silent people this Saturday,” tweeted Yoani
Sánchez, publisher of the independent news website, 14yMedio.com.
“It is like everyone is just sad,” added Anaida Gonzales, a retired
nurse in the central province of Camaguey. Castro’s death “was expected
but it still came as a shock.”
Amid the uncertainty, at least what happens immediately next is clear.
Castro’s body was cremated on Saturday and, after the memorial service
in Havana on Tuesday, his ashes will move in a procession east across
the country to Santiago, the country’s second biggest city, known as the
“cradle of the revolution”. There they will be put to rest on Sunday,
Beyond the memorial plans, however, there is uncertainty. Cuba and its
11m people find themselves at a crossroads. Mr Castro’s death comes as
Venezuela, facing its own economic crisis, has scaled back its aid to
Cuba. Castro’s death also comes as the policy of rapprochement led by
Barack Obama — which has relaxed but not ended the longstanding US
embargo — could be rolled back by Donald Trump.
The president-elect has blown hot and cold on Mr Obama’s policy of
détente, at first saying during his campaign that he supported it but
would seek “a better deal”, then pledging to “reverse” Mr Obama’s approach.
“The timing [of Castro’s death] could not be worse. It comes as the
shadow of uncertainty in future US relations hangs over the island,”
commented Peter Kornbluh, author of “Back Channel to Cuba”, a history of
negotiations between Washington and Havana. “What Trump says…[will] be
his first major test of Presidential diplomacy and could determine the
tone of relations for the foreseeable future.”
On Saturday, Mr Trump tweeted: “Fidel Castro is dead!” In a statement
from his presidential transition team, he added later: “While Cuba
remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move
away from the horrors endured for so long, and toward a future in which
the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly
Castro’s death also throws a spotlight on the future of the significant
but still limited economic reforms initiated by Raúl Castro that have
sought to balance the conflicting aims of liberalising Cuba’s flagging
Soviet-style economy while maintaining state control.
“One is left to wonder whether any successor will have the requisite
legitimacy to take the hard decisions to pull Cuba out of its doldrums.
Such decisions will come with enormous amounts of transitional pain,”
said Carlos Saladrigas, a moderate Cuban exile leader who supports
engagement. “On the other hand, this may truly be an opportunity for
President Raul Castro to start taking those tough decisions while he’s
still in office. Cuba’s economy is in shambles.”
As Bert Hoffman, a longtime Cuba watcher at the German Institute of
Global and Area Studies, remarked pithily: “Cuba is going into
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