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Trump Matters More for US-Cuba Relations Than Castro's Death

Even after Fidel's death, his legacy will live on thanks to his brother—what Donald Trump will do when it comes to Cuba is far more of a mystery.

From the day he entered Havana in 1959 after leading a guerrilla revolution against Cuba's US-backed military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro occupied an oversized space in American politics. Over his 49 years of rule, the "Maximum Leader" became a major US antagonist during the Cold War. His regime spawned a wave of refugees that reshaped US demographics. And his country remained, improbably, one of the world's last bastions of straight-up Communism.

So Castro's death Friday night wasn't just the passing of one of the world's most controversial and hated leaders, but the end of an era. Yet for all the hullabaloo, most signs indicate that Fidel's death won't have a huge practical effect in Cuba. Still, it marks the first major foreign policy event that US President-elect Donald Trump has to grapple with—and it could egg on America's new Twitter-user-in-chief into a confrontation with Cuba that could undo the normalization of relations between the two nations initiated almost two years ago.

Fidel has not actually been in charge of Cuba for a decade. After five years of visibly failing health, he temporarily turned over power to Raúl Castro, his younger brother and the Cuban minister of defense, in 2006, then made the transfer permanent in 2008.

"During the years between his retirement and death, Fidel Castro retained considerable influence" in Cuban affairs of state, said Brian Latell, a Florida International University professor who initially tracked the Castros for the CIA and has since written a number of books on them. He adds that Raúl reportedly regularly consulted with is brother over the past ten years.

Yet Raúl always had a distinct personality—he's reputedly more pragmatic and managerial, less intransigently ideological and bombastic, than his brother. Especially over the last five years, he's slowly ramped up a series of reforms that opened the tightly controlled Cuban economy to limited free enterprise, allowed more public debate and access to travel and communications technology, and attempted to address corruption, bloat, and graying in the state apparatus—all allegedly over the grumbling of his stridently anti-reform brother.

"By agreeing to normalize the diplomatic relationship with the US—while the economic embargo was still in effect and Guantánamo under the American flag," says Latell, "Raúl ignored two of Fidel's most implacable demands."

Latell and others have argued that Fidel may have slowed Raúl's reforms, with some outlets going so far as to hope the death of the elder Castro will see the demise of his Communist state. Yet it's just as likely that Raúl, who reportedly idolizes the Chinese and Vietnamese model of state-controlled, strongman-run quasi-capitalism, is devoted to slow, experimental change. An active participant in his brother's harsh dictatorship who referred to himself as "Raúl the Terrible" for his role in political executions, he shows no signs of changing course on one-party control, human rights policy, or anything other than a light economic opening.

The unknown factor in Cuba's future is not the island's current leadership, but the incoming US president. Though his company's executives reportedly did business with Cuba during the embargo in 1998, and though his stance on Cuba was murky during the in Republic primaries, during the general election campaign Trump took a hard line on Cuba, promising to reverse Barack Obama's executive actions that pushed the countries more toward normal relations unless the Castro government became more open on political and human rights issues. Trump then named a major pro-embargo lobbyist to his transition team, suggesting that he won't be receptive to business leaders' desires to be allowed more access to the island country despite his generally pro-business platform.

Confronted again with Cuban affairs by Fidel's death, Trump reiterated his general stance on Twitter on Monday, after aides and allies made even clearer and stronger statements along the same lines over the weekend.

Anti-Castro optimists might hope that, especially given Cuba's rapid loss of Latin American allies (including its economic lifeline, Venezuela), the pragmatic Raúl might make conciliatory moves or even concessions toward Trump, whose bluster now has consequences.

"President Trump will not need to change many or [even] any regulations or policies to have an impact upon Cuba," said John Kavulich of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "Banks, companies, and governments will fear the potential [for a renewal of restrictions]—and then it becomes [economic] reality."

Kavulich is among those who believe Raúl will likely stand his ground against Trump and refuse to make concessions when it comes to the civil rights of Cubans—in keeping with his track record and his imperative to show his Castro legitimacy by standing up to America, Fidel's favorite hobby horse—even it that results in negative economic consequences. That battle of wills would likely reverse years of diplomatic progress to where things stood a decade ago.

"The government of Cuba will choose the suffering of its citizens over believing that it is capitalizing to the United States," said Kavulich of the overall Castro-Cuban diplomatic mindset.

But much depends upon Trump's priorities. His belligerence toward Cuba at the moment may just reflect the fact that Cuba is in the news. Trump didn't make Cuba much of a campaign issue, and by the time he takes office, he may have bigger things to worry about, allowing the status quo to fly on under the radar. Once again, US-Cuba relations will come down to the whims of a grudge-holding demagogue with a talent for media manipulation—only now, that demagogue is on the American side of the Florida Straits.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.