Fidel Castro's Role In Restoring Diplomatic Relations, If Any, Is Up For Debate

Nov 27, 2016
Originally published on November 27, 2016 9:38 am
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Fidel Castro's death comes at a time of a changing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and a changing administration here at home. Nearly two years ago, the Obama administration and Castro's brother, Raul, announced a prisoner exchange and agreed to restore diplomatic relations after decades of hostility. How much of a role did Fidel Castro play? That's a question NPR's Michele Kelemen put to Cuba-watchers.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Obama announced his new approach to Cuba, he barely mentioned Fidel Castro. In fact, he says the name only came up as something of a joke when he spoke to Fidel's brother, the current Cuban president, Raul Castro, by phone. Obama says he opened this historic phone call with about 15 minutes of remarks about how the U.S. hopes this relationship will evolve.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At the end of my remarks, I apologized for taking, you know, such a long time. But I wanted to make sure that before we engaged in the conversation that we - he was very clear about where I stood. He said, oh, don't worry about it, Mr. President. You're still a young man, and you have still the chance to break Fidel's record. He once spoke seven hours straight.

KELEMEN: And the joke didn't end there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: And then President Castro proceeded to deliver his own preliminary remarks that lasted at least twice as long as mine.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And then I was able to say, obviously it runs in the family. But that was the only discussion of Fidel Castro that we had.

KELEMEN: While President Obama downplayed Fidel Castro's role in this diplomatic opening, Cuba-watchers see this as a matter of debate. Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, thinks Fidel Castro's role was probably fairly limited because he's been out of power for much of the last decade.

TOMAS BILBAO: Initially, he was active at least in writing his reflections in the Cuban newspaper to try to at least influence public opinion, if not let people know what was on his mind, which still carried, obviously, a lot of weight.

KELEMEN: When President Obama made an historic trip to Cuba, Fidel Castro wrote a rambling column in the Communist Party newspaper saying, quote, "we don't need the empire to give us anything." Obama didn't meet Fidel.

And Bilbao, who supports President Obama's decision to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba, says it seems to have been easier for the U.S. to take these steps with Fidel's brother, Raul.

BILBAO: Raul, perhaps not being able to gain legitimacy by charisma or because of his role as father of the revolution like his brother did, may have to gain legitimacy through results. And so he's perhaps more disposed and more pragmatic in that sense and in his willingness to enter this type of an agreement.

KELEMEN: Another Cuba expert, Julia Sweig, says Fidel Castro had to have played a role in the secret talks in Canada and the Vatican that led up to the change in the U.S. approach.

JULIA SWEIG: Obviously he wasn't in Ottawa negotiating, but I also have no doubt that he was directly consulted and very much involved in his own way, in the way that Raul Castro involves his brother Fidel, in major decisions about the life of the country. And this is the most major decision that they've made in several decades.

KELEMEN: Sweig, author of the book "Cuba: What Everyone Needs To Know," says this is an important legacy for both Castro brothers. Fidel, she says, outlasted 50 years of hostility to see Cuba and the U.S. back on track for normal ties.

SWEIG: They have to set the bilateral relationship on a more natural path, a more normal path, because living with a state of siege mentality, living under sanctions, living with that kind of heightened mobilization of the heyday of the Fidel Castro years is just not sustainable into the 21st century.

KELEMEN: In his statement on Fidel's death, President Obama says he extends a, quote, "hand of friendship" to the Cuban people. Many of the changes he made to U.S. policy toward the island have been by executive order. And on the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to roll them back.

The president-elect is giving few indications about what he might do now, though he says he hopes Fidel Castro's death marks a move away from what Trump calls the horrors endured by Cubans for so long.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.