When Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died in November, the responses issued by then-President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump made for a study in contrasts. Where Obama struck a note of optimism, looking forward to the brighter future of a Fidel-free Cuba, Trump dwelt on the past, deploring the irretrievable decades of human suffering Castro’s regime had wrought.
Despite their differences, both messages had value. Trump rightly named and critiqued Castro’s legacy of “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights,” while Obama pointed to one of the clearest foreign policy successes of his administration: the orchestration of a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in diplomacy, cultural exchange, and trade alike.
It’s a success Trump didn’t recognize then and remains inclined to undo now that he has replaced Obama in the Oval Office. As the New York Times reports, primary options under consideration include reversing the Obama-era relaxation of travel rules and prohibiting all trade between American businesses and Cuban companies with military ties. (That latter proposal is more complicated than it sounds, as the Cuban military, like those of many authoritarian governments, has its fangs sunk deep into the island’s economy.)
Whatever the options on the table, any steps back toward the demonstrably failed policy of isolation would be a grave and unforced error. It will make advances toward Cuban freedom more difficult and re-entrench the grim authority of the regime in Havana.