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Former Obama Adviser Discusses Fidel Castro's Legacy


The death of Fidel Castro is a chance to reflect on the past and also a chance to think about Cuba's future. Cuba's former president established a regime that remains in power close to six decades later. We've been hearing on NPR some of the old recordings of Castro from before he revealed himself as a communist, recordings as far back as 1959. That was the start of more than half a century of conflict with the United States. Under Castro's brother Raul, Cuba re-established diplomatic relations with the United States and has sought an economic opening but certainly not a political one.

Dan Restrepo joins us next. He was once a senior adviser to President Obama on Latin America and is now with the Center for American Progress. He's in our studios. Good morning.

DAN RESTREPO: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: OK. So Fidel Castro had effectively retired some years ago. But is anything different now that he's really, really gone?

RESTREPO: That's one of the many questions with his death. There are those who believe that Raul Castro has been somewhat reined in, if you will, under the ability to move forward with reforms because of the kind of looming specter of his brother. There are others who believe that what's reining him in is much more a desire to maintain political control and that he's opening as little economically as possible while maintaining political control. That will now be put to the test. Obviously what's happening here politically in the United States will also affect the dynamics between the two countries.

INSKEEP: Well, let's figure out what has happened in the last months of Fidel Castro's life. How much more open, if at all, is Cuba than it was a year ago, say, as it was re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States?

RESTREPO: Not a great deal more open. It's - what you have is very incremental change on the economic side over the course of the last several years - beyond the last two years where you've had this diplomatic normalization process with the United States. But change has been very slow.

And again, I think the - on the Cuban government side what they are trying to do is control the opening as much as possible so as not to lose political control. They have no interest in losing political control. They have clearly - they have made very clear they have no interest in a real political opening. Question is whether they can maintain control with greater openness from the United States.

INSKEEP: What American companies and industries are getting involved in Cuba right now?

RESTREPO: To date, the principal U.S. economic involvement is in the travel sector. So you have regularly-scheduled air traffic beginning again today between the United States and Cuba after 50 years of absence. You have agricultural sales to Cuba that have been going on for some time. So it's travel and agriculture but there are others.

There's the biomedical research where Cuba has made real advances on cancer research and cancer vaccines that are coming to the U.S. market, which is one of the novelties of the last couple of years. But the economic opening has been relatively contained. And so there hasn't been a great deal of U.S. economic activity vis-a-vis Cuba in large measure because the Cuban government has been slow to move.

INSKEEP: OK, so that raises another question. We have a new president coming in. President-elect Donald Trump was critical of reopening relations between the United States and Cuba. His incoming chief of staff said on television over the weekend it is possible that Trump would try to roll that back unless there is some kind of political changes in Cuba. Is it possible really to roll it back?

RESTREPO: It is, but it's a different conversation than it might have been a few years ago in part because what we were just talking about. There are more U.S. actors involved on Cuba policy than there traditionally were. This used to be an issue that was very much dominated by the politics of the Cuban-American community, which itself has changed tremendously. There is real support within the community for what President Obama has done. That support is real and will - and be maintained.

There are those who are opposed to what the president has done within the community. He used to be an intra-community conversation. Now you have other actors. You have other actors like the U.S. travel industry, like the agricultural industry. You see this in voices on the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle in Congress.

INSKEEP: Oh, companies that may not want to lose business or the potential for business here?

RESTREPO: Correct. Both things - those who are engaged in business and those who see possibilities for greater engagement. And there are also those who believe in, for example, one of the things that has been opened up over the course of the last couple of years is much more ability for Americans to travel to Cuba.

There are those who on principled grounds believe that U.S. citizens should be able to travel wherever they want and that the U.S. government shouldn't be telling people that they can't travel to any country. Those folks have been emboldened politically over the course of the last several years by the openings from President Obama. So the politics and the practicality of this is different than it was a couple of years ago.

INSKEEP: Can the new president just break off diplomatic relations though if he wants to?

RESTREPO: If he wants to he certainly can.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another thing here. President Obama was criticized by some conservatives for his statement about Fidel Castro's death. He said in the statement that he extends a hand of friendship to the Cuban people, but said nothing particularly bad or for that matter nothing good about Fidel Castro. There's no description of Fidel Castro at all. What did you think about that?

RESTREPO: Fidel Castro's death in a lot of ways has been a Rorschach test for where people stand on Cuba writ large. And on your theory of change in Cuba, President Obama has advanced a theory of change in Cuba that is about engaging the Cuban people and this notion that antagonism serves the purposes of the Cuban government and its desire to maintain political control on the island. And that what the United States can best do is engage with the Cuban people and do what it can to empower the Cuban people so they are less economically dependent on the Cuban state.

INSKEEP: You're saying that the president feels that if he was more strident in his statement it would actually serve the needs of the Castro regime to have an enemy?

RESTREPO: It has served the Castro regime for 50-plus years to have the enemy of the North, to have the empire to rail against to blame all its problems. They have a failed economic system not because of U.S. policy but because of their own economic policies. And they have used quite successfully the U.S. as the boogeyman. And I think President Obama has worked very hard throughout his entire presidency not to fall into that trap.

INSKEEP: Dan Restrepo, thanks for coming by.

RESTREPO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a former adviser to President Obama and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.