When former Cuban President Fidel Castro died last week, President Obama and President-elect Trump offered very different statements in response.
Obama focused not on Castro himself but on the future of the Cuban people. In diplomatic language that carefully avoided much assessment of Castro’s legacy, his central theme was how the United States now “extend[s] a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
“During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, ” Obama said, “pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends — bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity.”
Trump, by contrast, emphasized not the future but the past. “The world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades,” he said. “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” Trump went on to express hope that Castro’s death will lead to “a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”
While some criticized Obama’s remarks as too tepid (well, not like they criticized the truly bizarre comments from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), I’d suggest both statements have their value: Trump is right to critique Castro’s awful legacy of human rights abuses, and Obama is right to foster better relations between Cuba and the United States.
But what troubles me is that Trump doesn’t seem to understand the freedom he hopes to see can only be achieved through the friendship Obama promises. He has long threatened to undo the Obama-orchestrated thaw in diplomatic relations, and he has doubled down on that rhetoric since Castro’s demise.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, “I will terminate deal.”
Trump surrogate Reince Priebus made a similar argument Sunday on Fox News. “Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners — these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships,” he said. “There’s going to have to be some movement from Cuba in order to have a relationship with the United States.”
The problem is that’s exactly backward. A “free and open relationship” is precisely what will bring an end to repression and political imprisonment. A relationship with the United States is the single best hope for movement in Cuba.
Now, I’ve never been to Cuba, but I have lived in the world’s largest surviving communist nation: China. I spent a year there in primary school and have since returned for about a month and a half as an adult.
The difference between those two experiences was remarkable. The China I lived in as a kid was a culturally isolated nation still visibly damaged by years of communist oppression.
We ate most of our meals in a “restaurant” built out of tarps and furnished with plastic lawn chairs and stools which was located on a street entirely populated by similar establishments. When it rained, discarded food waste would float down the street to rot wherever it landed.
One time, while walking home from our regular restaurant, my mom and I saw a crowd gathering at a street corner and went over to see what the fuss was about. At the center of the crowd was a young woman standing still, red-faced, with her eyes downcast. She was wearing a sign with writing on it, and someone in the crowd managed to communicate to us that the sign said she was a thief. This was her punishment: Standing for hours outside, subject to public humiliation. I was too young to understand a lot of the differences between China and America, but that this was not how my country treated its citizens I instantly understood. Unsettled, my mother and I rushed home.
Since then, the China I’ve visited is a markedly different country. It has hardly embraced Western-style liberal democracy, but steadily increasing economic liberty and free trade have worked wonders for the Chinese people’s quality of life. The nation that suffered through the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” looks very different today, and it is difficult to imagine the same progress could have occurred under an American embargo like the one that defined U.S.-Cuba relations for years.
If Donald Trump really wants to see Cuba liberated, he should support as much free trade as the regime in Havana will allow. He is right that the Cuban people have endured enough; now he must preserve the hand of friendship America has belatedly offered.