Trump slams ‘brutal dictator’ Fidel Castro. Obama takes a softer approach.

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Yahoo News
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
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Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Green Bay, Wis. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday greeted the news that Fidel Castro had died by denouncing Cuba’s longtime leader as a “brutal dictator” with a legacy of bloodshed. Trump, who vowed to help the island nation’s people achieve freedom and prosperity, did not explicitly repeat campaign-trail promises to roll back President Obama’s historic outreach to the island nation.

The entrepreneur’s reaction could scarcely have been more different than the sitting commander in chief’s response. Obama declared that now was the time to “extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and largely sanitized deep Cold War-era criticisms of Castro’s record on human rights and economic freedom.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation,” the president said. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

Trump, whose initial reaction to the news was the four-word tweet “Fidel Castro is dead!” took a far sharper tone in a written statement later issued by his transition team.

“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades,” Trump said. “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”

Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro formally stepped down in 2008 after suffering gastrointestinal ailments and public appearances have been increasingly unusual in recent years, April 19, 2016. (Photo: Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate /AP)
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Fidel Castro attends the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana on April 19, 2016. (Photo: Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate /AP)

While Trump and Obama portrayed Castro in vastly different lights, both put an emphasis on future U.S.–Cuba relations.

“Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty,” Trump said.

Obama noted the “discord and profound political disagreements” that characterized U.S.-Cuba relations for decades after the 1959 revolution that swept Castro to power but emphasized his administration’s efforts to embrace engagement.

“During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, 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,” the president said. “The Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”

President-elect Donald Trump listens as President Obama speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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President-elect Donald Trump listens as President Obama speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The president-elect did not repeat past promises to roll back Obama’s historic outreach to Cuba. On October 12, Trump had declared on Twitter that he “will reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until freedoms are restored,” but there was no similar language in his statements on Saturday. Since Election Day, Trump has seemed to soften some of this hard-line campaign promises, leaving it unclear exactly what he’ll do on issues like Cuba when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Obama and Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro, Cuba’s current leader, shocked the world in December 2014 by announcing a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations. The two nations resumed diplomatic relations; Washington took Havana off the list of state sponsors of terrorism; and both sides took steps toward greater economic relations. Unable to lift the decades-old trade embargo without Congressional approval, Obama has taken a number of executive steps to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and spend money there. The White House has been working to make the policy “irreversible,” while some Democrats and a majority of Republicans want to undo at least some of his outreach once Trump enters the Oval Office.

Obama’s statement did not repeat any of his State Department’s sharp criticisms of Cuba’s human rights record, issued in its annual report on international right practices. But it’s relatively rare for sitting U.S. presidents to use the death of another world leader as a springboard for denouncing that person. Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and rarely hesitated to criticize Moscow. But his White House’s statements on the deaths of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov mostly muted those complaints.