HAVANA - When the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than half a century touched down in Santa Clara in August, the JetBlue plane from Fort Lauderdale was met with cheers and water-cannon salutes.
When the first commercial flight between Miami and Havana in more than half a century landed at José Martí International Airport Monday morning, the American Airlines 737 taxied quietly to the terminal and unloaded 125 passengers wearing complimentary straw fedoras.
No confetti. No music. And it felt remarkably fitting.
That’s not because the Miami-Havana flight wasn’t historic. In fact, it was more momentous than the JetBlue trip – certainly richer in symbolism – given the bitter animosity between Miami and Havana ever since the Cuban Revolution took power in 1959 and forced millions of Cubans into exile in South Florida.
“This flight for me represents a much more important connection,” Cuban exile Belkys Martinez, who still has family in Havana, told me as we boarded American 17 at Miami International Airport. “These are the two cities that normalization has to reconcile.”
But the celebration of that flight, and hopes for the reconciliation Martinez spoke of, were significantly tamped down by two developments over the weekend: first, the death of Cuban Revolution founder Fidel Castro Friday night at age 90; second, remarks by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s camp that he definitely plans to undo normalized relations between the U.S. and the communist island.
The American flight found a Havana in mourning – nine days of it, actually, until Fidel’s funeral in Santiago this Sunday. Meanwhile, it had just left a city whose more conservative Cuban leadership has found its mojo again, thanks to Trump, and which hopes to yank U.S.-Cuba relations back to the punitive, island-isolation policies of the cold war.
Cuba’s own conservative hardliners, especially the geriatric revolutionaries known as los históricos, would love nothing better. Fidel’s demise makes their iron-fisted dominance vulnerable, and a hostile U.S. turnabout – the great yanqui threat only they can thwart – is just the thing they need to shore it up again.
The key question, then, is whether President Raúl Castro – the younger and more pragmatic brother to whom Fidel handed the reins of his authoritarian regime 10 years ago – will pursue more economic if not democratic reform in Cuba now that Big Brother’s shadow has finally been lifted.
Keep your expectations low, say Cuba experts, but don’t abandon hope.
“Fidel’s presence was a real drag on the current [Cuban] leadership,” says Brian Latell, a senior research associate at Florida International University and a former CIA analyst who kept a close watch on Fidel during his half-century-long rule of Cuba.
Latell notes Fidel was “quite enraged” by the speech President Obama made during his historic visit to Havana in March, in which he challenged Raúl Castro to give Cubans more political and economic freedoms – especially access to the Internet.
“And Fidel expressed that anger, which resulted in the re-solidifying of a hard line in Cuba this year," says Latell, who has authored three books on Fidel – including an e-book published over the weekend on Amazon, “History Will Absolve Me: Fidel Castro Life and Legacy.”
"But much of that was focused on Fidel. Now that Fidel is gone, [it] may have a harder time remaining as potent – and Raúl may feel less encumbered, feel less of an obligation to bow to his brother.
“The possibilities for deeper [U.S.] engagement with Raúl I think will be greater now than they were when Fidel was still alive,” Latell adds. “But greater human rights? That’s something that may have to wait until after Raúl himself is gone.”
“They key operative word is ‘could,’” says Latell’s FIU colleague Frank Mora, who heads the university’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.
“The Cuban regime will always choose its grip on power over improving the standard of living in Cuba – especially if the latter threatens that power. The other variable is Trump. If his administration reverses Obama’s normalization policy, then the regime can circle the wagons.”
“But,” Mora adds, “after Fidel’s passing Raúl could embark on real economic reform because Havana is left with no other options these days to address its dire economic situation. He might take the risk of truly opening to at least non-U.S. foreign investment and couple that with measures to ensure political control.”
Others, like John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, are more pessimistic.
“I think it’s delusional to believe that with his brother’s passing, Raúl will somehow reward the citizens of Cuba,” says Kavulich, “because he will now be focused on confirming that the revolution did not rely on just his brother.”
All of which are big reasons there was no confetti greeting American 17 when it landed in Havana on Monday.