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How Fidel Castro’s death marks a new era for Cuba

November 28, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
A 21-gun salute launched Cuba’s week of mourning for Fidel Castro, who passed away Friday night at 90. But in Miami, it was a day of celebration for the many who see the former leader’s death as the conclusion of a violent and oppressive era. Jeffrey Brown talks to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and The Heritage Foundation’s Ana Quintana about what’s next for Cuba and its relationship with the U.S.

JOHN YANG: The last two years have seen a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. But could the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump jeopardize the warming trend that President Obama started?

Here’s Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Havana, a 21-gun salute marked the official start of a week of mourning for Cuba’s revolutionary leader. University students took to the streets, chanting his name, and long lines snaked around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, as Cubans waited their turn to pay tribute to the man who brought a communist-run state within 100 miles of the U.S.

LUIS ALVAREZ, Farmer (through translator): Fidel has been the biggest thing in my life, for me and for all Cubans. The new generations have to learn to be like him, because he gave everything to us, everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Damien Cave is there reporting for The New York Times.

DAMIEN CAVE, The New York Times: It’s a mix of sadness, and then also a relief, to some degree, for many. It almost feels like the whole city or the whole country has just exhaled enormously, and is both trying to kind of make sense of the past, and also figure out a way to move forward.

One chapter is closed and another chapter is open, someone said to me. It’s not the full tale, but this definitely feels like a turning point, at least symbolically.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, a very different scene, one of jubilation, as the children and grandchildren of those who fled Castro’s rule say his death marks a new beginning.

MAN: I don’t celebrate death, but I celebrate the death of a tyrant.

WOMAN: Now is the time. And it’s definitely in the hands of the young people to take it over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever comes next for Cuba and the U.S., there was one new link formed today: The first commercial flight from Miami landed in Havana.

And now to that question of future U.S.-Cuba relations, we’re joined first by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota.

Welcome to you, Senator.

Is it time now to move ahead with the re-engagement that President Obama began or a time to take a pause with the death of Fidel Castro?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-Minn.): Well, I think it’s time to move ahead.

This has been 50-some years of a failed policy. And both the Cuban people and the American people are really ahead of many of the people in their own government. Congress has sat on this for years, and I think it’s time to lift the embargo.

The death of Fidel Castro, of course, is not as significant when you first look at it, because Raul Castro, his brother, has been in power for years. But, in fact, he’s been a looming figure even during his illness that I think has made a difference in holding us back in trying to open up more negotiations and move ahead with opening up relations between our two countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donald Trump, of course, has threatened to reimpose some of the sanctions that President Obama lifted.

Isn’t it likely that he will be under pressure to keep some of those campaign promises now?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, I hope that at least this death of Fidel Castro causes him to pause and take some time to look at this, because you have so many Americans now wanting to visit there, visiting there.

You have ag. interests down there. And you have the Cuban people. Everywhere I went on my visits with the president and with Secretary Kerry, there was artwork, and it would have the number and date December 17. And I thought, what’s that? Is that some Castro birthday?

It was actually the date President Obama and Raul Castro started to open diplomatic relations, and that is so significant to the Cuban people, because they are, many of them, entrepreneurs, many of them very friendly to America.

And I think this is an opportunity for the Cubans. It’s the only way we are going to change their democratic and human rights situation, and certainly an opportunity for Americans, 11 million people 90 miles off our shore, forecast that five million Americans would visit every year.

And, of course, we would then be able to export products as well if we lifted our — the embargo with our bipartisan bill.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I wonder also, in countering the critics, can you point to specific changes, political changes, in Cuba to say that this re-engagement has at least started to work, that we should continue with it? What would you say?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, I think that there is a lot more interest between our countries.

There are still people that have been held for human rights that shouldn’t be held for just speaking their mind. Of course, there were some releases immediately. Alan Gross and others were released, but there are still people that are being imprisoned.

So, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this. I just think what we have been doing hasn’t been working. And when we are this close to the country and there is so much cross-interest between the two countries, you have got the Catholic Church playing a major role, the pope a force behind this and wanting to lift the embargo, I think all these things are on our side.

And that’s why President Obama has been leading the way, because, otherwise, the people will get in front of us here. And I think it’s time to change this policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, how do you see the legacy of Fidel Castro now?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, obviously, it is a legacy of very difficult situations for many people in his own country. There are still a lot of people living in poverty.

They have major issues with not having enough food. That’s why we’re able to send some food down there under a humanitarian exemption. And he’s killed people, basically, in order to support the dictatorship that he ran for so long.

So, I don’t see that has a positive legacy. But what I do see is Cuban people that are just — want to see change. They are vibrant. They are trying to fix up old cars, so they can start their tourism businesses. There’s hundreds of thousands of small companies that have already started under some exceptions that Raul Castro has put into place.

So, I see a country that is on the cusp of change, and we should be helping that change, instead of continuing an old policy that hasn’t worked.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, thank you very much.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Thank you. It’s great to be on, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now a very different view from Ana Quintana, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, and herself a first-generation Cuban American.

Welcome to you.

ANA QUINTANA, The Heritage Foundation: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your description of the legacy of Fidel Castro?

ANA QUINTANA: Well, mine isn’t quite as positive.

I believe it’s one of tyranny. It’s one of tens of thousands of people being murdered. And, I mean, it’s two million people who have been displaced and lost their country.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you have opposed President Obama’s engagement from the beginning. What should happen now, now that Fidel Castro is dead?

ANA QUINTANA: Well, now I think it’s time to reassess these past two years and recognize that this policy has been a failure, right?

And it’s notwithstanding the death of Fidel Castro, but this year alone, there have been over 10,000 politically motivated arrests. Persecution against the religious community on the island has increased significantly. Churches by the hundreds are being bulldozed. And that’s something that is not being focused on.

So, I think, moving forward, president-elect Trump has a significant opportunity to kind of revert back these unilateral concessions, these unilateral executive actions that President Obama implemented and really put the ball back in the United States’ court and say, you know what, Cuba? You should free all your political prisoners, and before we continue normalizing relations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how far do you push this? For example, should president-elect Trump — well, there is a recently opened embassy. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Should that be closed again?

ANA QUINTANA: Well, not specifically.

But I think, moving forward, so, President Obama has implemented about 52 to 53 executive actions, many of them allowing for financing for the regime, or allowing for business opportunities for the regime for military and state-owned enterprises.

I think that’s where we should start. I think we should put a cap back on remittances for Cuban military and intelligence officials. These are the same security officials that are using this money to arrest and conduct significant repression against the dissidents on the island.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but to the extent that things are already happening, there’s already the case of Starwood Hotels, own by Marriott, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Has taken a deal with the Cuban government to take over a government-run hotel.


JEFFREY BROWN: Should that be rescinded, that kind of thing that has already started? Should we roll back those kind of things?

ANA QUINTANA: Yes, well, that’s something that is owned and operated by the Cuban military.

So, any company that wants to engage in financial commercial exchanges with the military is taking a very big risk. But I think the purpose of President Obama’s Cuban policy wasn’t to enrich the Cuban military or the security apparatuses of the country. It was to improve the economic conditions and the political conditions for the Cuban people.

That’s exactly what the senator just said. But two years later, we’re recognizing the only people who’s benefiting is the dictatorship. There is no such thing as dictator-down economics. The people are not benefiting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but the senator also said that this all happened after many, many years of nothing, of a policy that wasn’t working. That was the argument for re-engagement.


Well, I think that’s false. The policy — we can’t say the policy didn’t work. The policy wasn’t meant for regime change. The policy was meant to protect the American citizens that are now — they are now owed upwards of $8 billion in uncompensated assets, in money that was seized of theirs by the regime. And that’s why the policy was put in place.

And moving forward, that’s something that should be kept in line. I mean, these Americans have not been repaid the money that was taken away from them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just very briefly, in our last minute here, the impact of U.S. businesses that do want to go over there, right, that are already there or that are — they’re itching to get in?

ANA QUINTANA: Well, I think what’s happening is, we are replicating — the United States government is allowing for American businesses to dictate its foreign policy towards Cuba.

So we’re replicating the situation that was existing before Castro, right, where U.S. businesses had a great relationship with the dictator Batista, and he — and this is what’s dominating U.S.-Cuba relations. And the people who are suffering in this, it’s the 11 million Cuban people who are still on the island and Cuba’s democratic dissidents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ana Quintana, thank you very much.

ANA QUINTANA: Thank you.