The World Affairs Council of Atlanta always frames its Cuba trips as a chance to see the country before it “changes,” implying that its slow reforms could alter the chance to see an economy largely stuck in time, a sustained experiment in Communist policies.
With the death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro this week, following on the heels of Donald J. Trump’s election as U.S. president, that argument has a bit more punch, and seeing the country under the lenient travel rules enacted by the Obama administration takes on a bit more urgency.
“Cuba is always fascinating, more so now as both Cuba and the United States leadership change,” Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and a former ambassador to Venezuela, told Global Atlanta. The council is running a business trip in April.
The death of the 90-year-old Castro, revered by some as a symbol of stubborn resistance to imperial powers and despised as an abusive dictator by others, elicited a variety of responses from world leaders, including a circumspect statement by U.S. President Barack Obama that sought to acknowledge Castro’s significance to Cuban history and his controversial nature without jeopardizing gains in the bilateral relationship. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire on social media for praising Castro as a friend and calling him a “remarkable” leader in his statement, even as he was set to speak on human rights in Africa.
Indisputably a symbol of totalitarian staying power, Mr. Castro led a revolution in 1959 and stayed in power until falling ill in 2006, when his brother, Raul Castro, became acting president. In 2008, Raul was made president officially. In July, he and Mr. Obama last year normalized relations and opened embassies in each other’s capitals for the first time in 60 years, a landmark step in a process of rapprochement that began nearly two years ago.
Raul has advocated a gradual opening of the state-run economy and has designated a small but enhanced role for small-scale private-sector entrepreneurs in the country. Some believe these reforms could accelerate without Fidel’s moderating influence, Mr. Shapiro said.
“Cuba has experienced a slow-motion transition since 2006 when Raúl took over the reins of government and the Cuban man in the street has become accustomed to the idea that Fidel would one day depart the scene. I do not expect government of Cuba policies, enshrined at the VII Congress of the Communist Party in April of this year, will change over the short term,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has vowed to roll back many of Mr. Obama’s reforms to the relationship, opposed by many descendants of Cuban exiles in Florida who fled a Castro regime that cracked down ruthlessly on political opponents.
Mr. Obama’s policies — from expanding categories of permitted travel to enabling direct commercial flights to allowing Americans to bring back more cigars in their suitcases — were enacted by executive order and would be relatively simple to reverse.
“Candidate Trump pledged to roll back the changes implemented by President Obama since December 2014, and I expect that he will follow through on those campaign promises. President Obama changed policy by executive order, not changes in law, and the incoming Trump Administration can simply issue new Executive Orders modifying or cancelling those issued by the Obama administration,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Indeed, the more than 50-year embargo limiting trade with the island nation of 11 million people has yet to be reversed by Congress.
“Cuba is fascinating precisely because it is struggling with the Rubik’s cube of how to modernize its economy without opening the political system or eliminating ‘the leading role of the Communist party,’” Mr. Shapiro said. “The most interesting thing we do is meet with Cubans – often in their apartments – and hear their stories, their hopes for the future and their frustrations.”
The World Affairs Council has been offering trips to Cuba for years, but this will be the first where it can take advantage of a new nonstop flight by Delta Air Lines Inc. from Atlanta, which will give travelers an extra half day in Cuba while eliminating the need to overnight in Miami.
Read the full email interview with Mr. Shapiro below:
Global Atlanta: Does Fidel Castro’s death make this a more interesting time to go, in a way, or since he was already in the background, do you see this as not changing things much?
Mr. Shapiro: Yes, Cuba is always fascinating, more so now as both Cuba and the United States leadership change. Fidel’s death is important since he symbolized the original generation of the Cuban Revolution. Many argue that while younger brother Raúl became acting president in 2006 and president in 2008, the older brother opposed Raúl’s reforms and was a brake on change. Cuba has experienced a slow motion transition since 2006 when Raúl took over the reins of government and the Cuban man in the street has become accustomed to the idea that Fidel would one day depart the scene. I do not expect government of Cuba policies, enshrined at the VII Congress of the Communist Party in April of this year, will change over the short term.
Global Atlanta: How do you feel this will change the trajectory of newly normalized relations with the US? Will President Raul Castro now have a freer hand to continue with reforms?
Raul made it clear at the Party Congress that he wants a very gradual opening of the economy, but an opening that is very much controlled by the government of Cuba. The very small Cuban private sector will not be allowed to compete with the Communist Party in influence. Foreign companies do business with the government and state-owned enterprises controlled by the government. They are not allowed to do business with each other or with the Cuban private sector.
Relations with the US will of course depend on the incoming administration in Washington. Candidate Trump pledged to roll back the changes implemented by President Obama since December 2014, and I expect that he will follow through on those campaign promises. President Obama changed policy by Executive Order, not changes in law, and the incoming Trump Administration can simply issue new Executive Orders modifying or cancelling those issued by the Obama administration.
Global Atlanta: Can you give me a sense for the meetings that you will have, especially on the policy trip, that will help shed light on these topics for your fellow travelers?
Our trips to Cuba are extraordinary experiences. We meet with government of Cuba officials, the U.S. Embassy, diplomats from other countries, the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana, and Cuban entrepreneurs as well as with ordinary Cubans.
Cuba is fascinating precisely because it is struggling with the Rubik’s cube of how to modernize its economy without opening the political system or eliminating “the leading role of the Communist party.” The most interesting thing we do is meet with Cubans – often in their apartments – and hear their stories, their hopes for the future and their frustrations. We’ve got two trips planned – a seven day/six night trip in February that will visit both Havana and the south coast of Cuba and a shorter Havana only trip (five days, four nights) in April. The direct Delta flight is a godsend. Not only is travel to Cuba less expensive but it is no longer necessary to spend the night in Miami on the way down. That means an extra half day in Cuba at a better price.
I encourage Global Atlanta readers to contact Clare Morton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and register for the February 19-25 trip by December 4 in order to save $400. It’s our Black Friday/Cyber-Monday deal.