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By Marc Frank and Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fidel Castro’s death could give his younger brother, President Raul Castro, more space to pursue economic reforms, but change will also depend on whether U.S. President-elect Donald Trump decides to work with or challenge Cuba’s communist government.

Raul Castro has introduced market-oriented reforms in recent years, but the pace of change has been slowed, many Cubans say, by Fidel Castro’s continued influence over an old guard that mistrusts both markets and warming ties with Washington.

Two years ago, the more pragmatic, younger Castro engineered a detente with the old enemy that has seen commercial flights, dollar remittances and American tourists all flow into the cash-strapped Caribbean island.

Those advances could easily be reversed if Trump sticks to the harder line he took at the end of his election campaign, when he vowed to close the U.S. embassy, opened last year after half a century, and to renegotiate President Barack Obama’s agreement to normalize relations with Cuba.

But Castro’s death could also be an opportunity for Trump to keep up an engagement with Cuba that is popular with voters and U.S. businesses.

With Fidel Castro now dead at 90 and the 85-year-old Raul Castro promising to retire in early 2018, working with Cuba becomes easier on a symbolic level.

Trump had not mentioned Cuba since his election and in his first responses to the overnight news from Cuba, he gave little sense of which way he will go.

“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,” Trump said in a statement.

Richard Feinberg, a former national security adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton, said it is now less likely that Trump will reverse Obama’s opening to the island.

“The passing of Fidel Castro removes the object of hatred, fear and revenge of many Cuban-Americans, bringing to an end what has been one of history’s longest grudge matches, opening the gates for the reconciliation of the deeply divided Cuban family,” he said.

“It is in the U.S. national interest to compete with China and Russia for influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean, and to see Cuba as a natural ally in counter terrorism,” said Feinberg, author of a book on the Cuban economy.

In the short term, Cuba may see from its government an orchestrated outpouring of support for Castro’s undiluted idea of communism.

The first sign of that was a government campaign launched on Saturday to have millions of Cubans sign a pledge to be faithful to Castro’s revolution, “as an expression of the will to perpetuate his ideas and our socialism”.

Even years after stepping down from the presidency, Castro remained a buttress for the old guard among Cuba’s political hierarchy and bureaucracy who are not convinced by Raul Castro’s measures leading Cuba slowly toward a socialist economy with a strong role for private businesses.

Over time that influence will fade, potentially making it easier for reformers in Raul Castro’s government and in the future.

“It removes a court of final appeal for the conservatives while giving hope to the usually younger reformers in the party for more rapid future economic change,” said David Jessop, a UK-based business consultant on Caribbean affairs.

TRANSITION

The inner workings of the Cuban power structure have always been tough to read, and not everyone believes Fidel Castro was behind a recent backtracking on market reforms, such as allowing farmers to sell products at market prices or permitting private imports and exports.

Mid-level bureaucrats fearful of losing power in the system are often seen as a major reason economic reforms have not been rolled out at the pace announced by Raul Castro in a 2011 policy paper.

“He was fully retired, so his passing is not likely to alter the course of Raul’s economic modernization program,” said William LeoGrande, co-author of a book on U.S.-Cuba relations.

“Of course, there are bureaucrats still in office who share Fidel’s ideological hostility to markets. They have been and will continue to be an obstacle to change.”

Trump may decide that Castro’s demise is an opportunity to pressure the communist government into making concessions, such as freeing political dissidents or preferential access for U.S. products and services.

“President-elect Trump may simplistically see a chance to restart an adversarial relationship … to prove he is the strong man he said he is,” said Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba.

Cuba has relied heavily on Venezuela for economic help, but a deep economic and political crisis at home means Venezuela cannot provide the same volumes of subsidized oil that Cuba is accustomed to.

Closer relations with the United States have helped, and backsliding on the thaw could further weaken Cuba’s economy, already battered by low commodity prices.

But an aggressive policy by Trump would close off lucrative opportunities to U.S. businesses and hand them to European or Asian firms. It would hurt companies like American Airlines, due to start commercial flights to Havana on Monday for the first time in half a century.

“Fidel’s death is yet another reason to continue the policies of the last two years. Change is here to stay in Cuba and the U.S. can either be a part of it or sit on the sidelines in the next four years,” said Jason Marczak at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kieran Murray and Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: President Fidel Castro addresses the audience as president of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations in New York, October 12, 1979.  REUTERS/Prensa Latina

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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