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Future and Past: A young Cuban and an old American car in Havana; an image of Fidel Castro hangs on the national library   

CREDIT: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

A New Day for Cuba?

The death of Fidel Castro raises big questions about Cuba’s future—and its relations with the U.S.
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Cuba & the U.S.

When Fidel Castro died at age 90 in November, many Cubans were devastated. Huge crowds gathered in the capital, Havana, to pay their respects to the country’s former leader, who had ruled the island nation for nearly 50 years.

Just a couple of hundred miles away in Miami, Florida, the reaction was very different. Thousands of Cuban-Americans—many of whom had fled Cuba to escape Castro and Communist rule—took to the streets in celebration, waving Cuban flags and cheering. To them, Fidel was a brutal dictator who stole their families’ land and businesses, jailed political opponents, and wrecked Cuba’s economy. 

“Him dying represents the end of something awful that happened to us,” says Isabel De Lara. She was 12 years old in 1961 when her parents sent her to the United States, fearful of what was to come after Castro’s takeover of Cuba. “It’s because of him that we lost our opportunity to have a life in our country.”

Although Fidel was no longer Cuba’s leader—he officially transferred power to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2008—he remained a force behind the scenes. Many hope that his influence will fade and that a new era will begin in Cuba.

When Fidel Castro died at age 90 in November, many Cubans were devastated. Many people gathered in the capital, Havana. They wanted to pay their respects to the country’s former leader. He had ruled the island nation for nearly 50 years.

The reaction was very different just a couple hundred miles away, in Miami, Florida. There, thousands of Cuban-Americans who had fled Cuba to escape Castro and his Communist rule were celebrating. They waved Cuban flags and cheered Castro’s death. To them, Fidel was a brutal dictator. He stole their families’ land and businesses. He jailed political opponents. He wrecked Cuba’s economy.

“Him dying represents the end of something awful that happened to us,” says Isabel De Lara. She was 12 years old in 1961 when her parents sent her to the United States. They were fearful of what would happen after Castro’s takeover of Cuba. “It’s because of him that we lost our opportunity to have a life in our country,” she says.

Castro transferred power to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2008. But Fidel remained a force behind the scenes. Many hope that his influence will now fade and that a new era will begin in Cuba.

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CREDIT: Jim McMahon

Historic Changes

Indeed, Fidel’s passing comes at a time of historic change for Cuba. In 2015, the U.S. and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of hostility. Since then, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro have taken steps to improve relations. They’ve reopened embassies in each other’s capitals, exchanged prisoners, and relaxed some trade and travel restrictions. 

But whether the U.S.-Cuba thaw will continue is uncertain. Donald Trump, who is set to become president on January 20, has pledged to undo many of Obama’s policy changes. He says the oppressive Castro regime doesn’t deserve to have closer ties with the U.S. until Cuba’s government allows Cubans to have greater freedoms. 

It’s also unclear whether Raúl—who spent much of his life in Fidel’s shadow—will steer Cuba in a different direction. His brother’s death may give Raúl the freedom to pursue further economic and political reforms. But many Cuban-Americans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, don’t expect change anytime soon. 

“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,” says Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants. “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”

Still, the next few years are sure to be a time of transition. Raúl, now 85, has said he’ll step down from the presidency in 2018. His vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, is expected to take over. But how, or if, a new leader will change things remains to be seen.

Indeed, Fidel’s passing comes at a time of historic change for Cuba. In 2015, the U.S. and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of hostility. Since then, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro have taken steps to improve relations. They’ve reopened embassies in each other’s capitals. They’ve exchanged prisoners. They’ve also relaxed some trade and travel restrictions.

But whether the U.S.-Cuba thaw will continue is uncertain. Donald Trump is set to become president on January 20, 2017. The president-elect has pledged to undo many of Obama’s policy changes. He says the oppressive Castro regime doesn’t deserve to have closer ties with the U.S. until Cuba’s government allows Cubans greater freedoms. 

It’s also unclear whether Raúl will steer Cuba in a different direction. Raúl has spent much of his life in Fidel’s shadow. His brother’s death may give him the freedom to push further economic and political reforms. But many Cuban-Americans don’t expect change anytime soon. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is among the skeptical. 

“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,” says Rubio. “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”

Still, the next few years will be a time of transition. Raúl, who is 85, has said he’ll step down from the presidency in 2018. His vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, is expected to take over. But how, or if, a new leader will change things remains to be seen.

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CREDIT: Rob Rogers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Universal UClick

Cuba Under the Castros

The complicated relationship between the U.S. and Cuba goes back to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (see Key Dates, below). At the time, Fidel, who had trained as a lawyer before taking up arms, was hailed as a liberator and a champion of the working class. Many Cubans who grew up during the revolution still see him as a hero.

At the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Communist powers, Castro aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, embracing its repressive political system, state-run economic model, and hostility toward the U.S. He also nationalized, without compensation, American businesses in Cuba. In response, Washington cut all diplomatic ties and imposed a trade embargo that largely remains in effect nearly 60 years later. 

Soviet aid kept Cuba’s economy afloat until the early 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba went into economic free fall. More recently, economic troubles in Venezuela—Cuba’s closest ally—have forced that country to cut aid to Cuba.

Today, shortages of food and other essentials are common. Although education and healthcare are free, most Cubans struggle to get by on government salaries that average about $20 a month. They often depend on money sent by relatives living overseas, most in the U.S. Many things that Americans take for granted, including air-conditioning, microwaves, and internet access, are luxuries in Cuba. Unable to afford new cars, many Cubans drive old American models from the 1950s (see photo, p. 12). And anyone who speaks out against the government can be harassed, beaten, or arrested.

Fed up with the lack of freedom and economic opportunities, thousands of Cubans risk their lives every year to escape to the U.S. Many come in rickety boats made from old car parts, inner tubes, or Styrofoam. Hundreds of Cubans have died attempting the dangerous 90-mile journey. 

But in the past few years, there have been glimmers of hope. When Raúl took over from his brother in 2008, he loosened restrictions on the economy and tried to reduce tensions with the United States. Cubans can now own businesses and buy cellphones and computers—if they’re among the few who can afford them.

Obama’s policy shifts have started to provide additional relief for some Cubans. In the past few years, Obama has chipped away at the embargo, making it easier for people in the U.S. to send money and goods to relatives in Cuba. 

In 2015, more than 160,000 Americans took advantage of relaxed travel rules to visit Cuba, up 77 percent from 2014. Cuban officials estimate that as many as 1.5 million Americans would visit Cuba every year if all restrictions were lifted, injecting $2 billion into the nation’s struggling economy. 

Obama has also eased some business restrictions, and American companies are now operating in Cuba. Carnival’s cruise ships started sailing from Miami to Havana last spring. JetBlue began offering regular flights to Cuba last year. And Netflix launched streaming services there in 2015.

The complicated relationship between the U.S. and Cuba goes back to the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Back then, Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who was supported by the U.S.

Fidel was welcomed as a liberator and a champion of the working class. He had trained as a lawyer before taking up arms. Many Cubans who grew up during the revolution still see him as a hero.

At the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Communist powers, Castro aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union. He embraced its repressive political system, state-run economic model, and hostility toward the U.S. He also nationalized, without compensation, American businesses in Cuba. In response, Washington cut all diplomatic ties. It also imposed a trade embargo. The embargo largely remains in effect nearly 60 years later.

Soviet aid supported Cuba’s economy until the early 1990s. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s economy suffered greatly. More recently, economic troubles in Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, have forced that country to cut off aid.

Today, shortages of food and other essentials are common. Although education and healthcare are free, most Cubans struggle to get by on government salaries. Wages average about $20 a month. Cubans often depend on money sent by relatives living overseas, most in the U.S. Many things that Americans take for granted, including air-conditioning, microwaves, and internet access, are luxuries in Cuba. Unable to afford new cars, many Cubans drive old American models from the 1950s. And anyone who speaks out against the government can be harassed, beaten, or arrested.

Thousands of Cubans risk their lives every year to escape to the U.S. They are fed up with the lack of freedom and economic opportunities. Many arrive in rickety boats made from old car parts, inner tubes, or Styrofoam. Hundreds of Cubans have died attempting the dangerous 90-mile journey.

But in the past few years, there’s been some hope. When Raúl took over from his brother in 2008, he loosened restrictions on the economy. He also tried to reduce tensions with the United States. Cubans can now own businesses. They can also buy cellphones and computers, if they’re among the few who can afford them.

Obama’s policy shifts have started to provide additional help for some Cubans. In the past few years, Obama has chipped away at the embargo. He has also made it easier for Americans to send money and goods to relatives in Cuba.

In 2015, more than 160,000 Americans took advantage of relaxed travel rules to visit Cuba. That’s up 77 percent from 2014. Cuban officials estimate that as many as 1.5 million Americans would visit Cuba every year if all restrictions were lifted. That would inject $2 billion into the nation’s struggling economy.

Obama has also eased some business restrictions. Indeed, some American companies are now operating in Cuba. Carnival’s cruise ships started sailing from Miami to Havana last spring. Jet Blue began offering regular flights to the island last year. And Netflix launched streaming services there in 2015.

Era of Uncertainty

Now Fidel’s death—and Trump’s victory—have ushered in a new era of uncertainty for Cuba. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s Cuba policies “unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” including releasing political prisoners and restoring religious and political freedoms.

Robert Muse, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in U.S.-Cuba trade law, says Trump can undo Obama’s efforts, but it may be hard in some areas. For one, U.S. companies have already spent billions of dollars to set up shop in Cuba and won’t take kindly to being told they have to stop doing business there. And fledgling Cuban businesses hoping to serve Americans won’t be pleased either.

Now Fidel’s death, and Trump’s victory, have led to a new era of uncertainty for Cuba. 

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to reverse Obama’s Cuba policies, “unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” he said. That would include releasing political prisoners. It would also include restoring religious and political freedoms.

Robert Muse is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in U.S.-Cuba trade law. He says Trump can undo Obama’s efforts. But he also says that it may be hard in some areas. For one, U.S. companies have already spent billions of dollars to set up shop in Cuba. They won’t like being told that they have to stop doing business there. And new Cuban businesses hoping to serve Americans won’t be happy either.

Will Trump reverse Obama’s Cuba policies?

“It would be a major blow to us,” says Niuris Ysabel Higueras Martínez, who runs Atelier, a restaurant in Havana that’s popular with American tourists. 

Trump has also taken a harder stance against lifting the embargo, siding with the influential Cuban-American community in South Florida that helped him win the state—and the presidency. Many Cuban-Americans believe that any money from American tourists or businesses would benefit the regime more than ordinary Cubans. The embargo can be ended only by Congress, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Though the future remains unclear, many people in both countries say they’re optimistic. Enrique López Oliva, a retired historian in Cuba, sees Fidel’s death as a turning point for the nation.

“It’s the end of one era and the beginning of another,” he says. “The death itself, we were waiting for that to happen at any moment. But now it feels like a new phase is about to begin.”

“It would be a major blow to us,” says Niuris Ysabel Higueras Martínez, who runs Atelier, a restaurant in Havana that’s popular with American tourists.

Trump has also taken a harder stance against lifting the embargo. He has sided with the influential Cuban-American community in South Florida. That community helped him win the state, and also the presidency. Many Cuban-Americans believe that any money from American tourists or businesses would benefit the regime more than ordinary Cubans. The embargo can be ended only by Congress. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Though the future remains unclear, many people in both countries say they’re optimistic. Enrique López Oliva, a retired historian in Cuba, sees Fidel’s death as a turning point for the nation.

“It’s the end of one era and the beginning of another,” he says. “The death itself, we were waiting for that to happen at any moment. But now it feels like a new phase is about to begin.”

KEY DATES: Cuba & the U.S.

    • Fidel and Raul Castro
    • 1959: Revolution

      Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army overthrow a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Castro takes charge, with his brother Raúl as his deputy. 

    • 1961: Bay of Pigs

      The U.S. backs the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, which fails to topple Castro. Castro announces he’s a socialist and strengthens ties with the Soviet Union.

    • President Kennedy speaking on TV
    • 1962: Missile Crisis

      President John F. Kennedy reveals that Soviet missiles are being installed in Cuba, bringing the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. After 13 tense days, the missiles are removed.

    • 1980: Mariel Boatlift

      Domestic unrest prompts Castro to allow people to leave from the port of Mariel; 125,000 Cubans head to Florida before Cuba stops the exodus six months later. 

    • 1991: Soviet Collapse

      The Soviet Union disintegrates. Castro loses his financial lifeline, and Cuba’s economy crashes. 

    • 2008: New President 

      Two years after becoming ill and handing power to his brother Raúl, Fidel Castro resigns and Raúl Castro formally takes over as Cuba’s president. Over the next few years, he eases some restrictions on private business and allows real estate sales for the first time.

    • Raul Castro and President Obama shaking hands
    • 2015: Restoring Ties 

      After more than 50 years of frozen relations, the U.S. and Cuba restore full diplomatic relations. In March 2016, President Obama becomes the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. Obama loosens restrictions on trade and travel, but only Congress can lift the embargo entirely.

    • Today: A New Chapter?

      With the death of Fidel Castro in November, the future of Cuba’s reforms and its relationship with the U.S. are now in question. 

With reporting by Lizette Alvarez, Damien Cave, and Azam Ahmed of The Times.

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