Hours after Fidel Castro’s death was announced, President Barack Obama didn’t just offer his condolences to the family of the former Cuban leader.
He also extended “a hand of friendship” to the Cuban people – a reminder of his administration’s efforts to renew diplomatic ties with the country’s close Caribbean neighbor, but a far cry from Castro’s policies of isolation and independence.
“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,” Obama said in a statement. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
Castro died at the age of 90. His younger brother, Raúl, who succeeded him as the country’s leader, announced the death on Cuban state TV late Friday. The cause of death was not released.
Shortly after Castro’s death was announced, hundreds took to the streets of Little Havana in Miami to celebrate the passing of a man they saw as a tyrant leader of their home country. But as The Post’s Nick Miroff reported from Havana, the streets in the Cuban capital were quiet hours after the former dictator died.
A nine-day period of mourning has been declared, heavy with revolutionary symbolism, Miroff reported.
“In the days ahead, they will recall the past and also look to the future,” Obama said in his statement. “As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”
Obama has made repairing the country’s relationship with the communist island nation a priority of his administration, ordering the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba during his second term.
“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,” Obama said. “This engagement includes the contributions of Cuban Americans, who have done so much for our country and who care deeply about their loved ones in Cuba.”
In 2014, Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously addressed their nations and announced the end of nearly six decades of animosity marked by political disagreements. By that time, Fidel Castro had been struggling with a mysterious illness and had largely disappeared from public life.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said in a televised address. “It’s time for a new approach.”
Obama’s decision, Raúl Castro said, “deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people.”
Last spring, Obama visited Cuba, becoming the first U.S. president to do so since Calvin Coolidge did in 1928. He has since made a series of executive actions increasing trade and travel to the communist island. The United States also reopened an embassy in Havana.
Fidel Castro, who did not meet with Obama during his visit, publicly criticized the renewed relationship. In a column published shortly after Obama’s historic visit, Castro listed anecdotes from decades of tumultuous relationship between the two nations.
“We don’t need the empire to give us anything,” Castro wrote, touting his country’s independence from foreign powers and suggesting that Obama should, instead, reflect and not develop theories about Cuban politics.
In 2009, after Obama’s inauguration, Castro gave him a welcoming message, telling him that “being born of a Kenyan Muslim father and a white American Christian deserves a special merit in the context of U.S. society and I am the first to recognize that.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American, did not mince words when he called Castro an “evil, murderous dictator” – and immediately attacked Obama’s more conciliatory tone, calling the president’s statement “pathetic.”
President-elect Donald Trump was more brief, tweeting a four-word reaction Saturday morning:
“Fidel Castro is dead!”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Kristine Guerra