Trump’s Strange Retreat from Cuba

CAMAGEUY, Cuba—President Barack Obama may have normalized relations with Cuba, but he didn’t normalize Cuba.

This still a strange tropical sub-paradise with good music, bad plumbing and unrealized potential, an island of retrograde politics and economics marooned in a global sea of modernity. It can feel like a parody of a Cold War relic—boxy Soviet-era Ladas wheezing along bumpy roads lined with faded revolutionary billboards, cavernous government-run stores with lots of employees, little merchandise and no profit motive whatsoever. There’s been some change since Obama’s opening—more American tourists, more money sent from American relatives, a modest construction boom in Havana as locals fix up their homes to rent on Airbnb—but it certainly hasn’t sparked an explosion of capitalism or democracy.

What it does seem to have sparked is hope. My wife and I spent the last week in Cuba with her father, who left the island when he was 13 in the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolution, and just about everyone we spoke to hailed the Obama thaw as a symbol of progress, a gesture that had seemed to signify better days to come. The Cubans we met were also worried and dismayed by President Donald Trump’s plans to undo some of Obama’s policies—less the substance, which they assumed would be fairly trivial, than the message, which they saw as another step backwards into a frustratingly inescapable past.

“It felt like we were moving towards the future, and now Trump wants to take us back,” said Arturo, a headstrong Camaguey resident who lost a job running a local agricultural cooperative after a spat with Communist Party officials. Arturo used the international language of international relations to illustrate the change in American leadership, first extending his hand, which he said was Obama’s approach to Cuba, and then clenching his fist, his visual metaphor for Trump’s approach.

Like his rejection of the Paris climate agreement, Trump’s rejection of Obama’s Cuba policies was more about messaging than governing, about showing his loyal supporters—in this case hard-line Cuban exiles rather than coal miners—that he loathes their enemies as much as they do. It was not a coincidence that he announced his new policy at the Manuel Artime Theater, a venue in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood named for a leader of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs effort to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961, a cultural symbol of anticommunist resistance and tribal solidarity. He portrayed Obama’s opening to Cuba as a victory for repression, and even though he has downplayed human rights in his dealings with regimes in Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, he pledged common cause with the politically connected exiles who believe it should be the overriding priority of U.S. relations with Cuba.

“You voted, and here I am,” Trump said.

***

For all his time-for-a-change bluster—“I am cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” he declared—Trump is actually leaving most of Obama’s Cuba policies in place. He is not cutting off diplomatic relations or shutting down the American embassy that Obama opened on the Havana waterfront in 2015. He is not putting Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism or reinstating the wet-foot-dry-foot policy that gave near-automatic citizenship to Cuban refugees who made it to the United States. His aides suggested he won’t rescind permission for U.S. airlines and cruise ships to visit to Cuba, or even cancel existing contracts that would run afoul of his new policies, like Starwood’s venture to run a Havana hotel owned by the Cuban military. And most of those policies sound either purely rhetorical, like affirming the importance of America’s 56-year-old trade embargo with Cuba, or potentially unworkable, like requiring U.S. visitors to keep detailed records of financial transactions to prove they didn’t buy goods or services from Raul Castro’s government.

That’s a bit like requiring fish to keep detailed records to prove they didn’t interact with any water while swimming. The Cuban military and other government affiliates own just about all the island’s hotels and tour services, not to mention the island’s stores, factories and cows. It would require an extraordinary bureaucratic undertaking to make sure American visitors spend their money only at privately owned restaurants and lodgings. And considering the Trump administration’s proposals for huge budget cuts in its diplomatic bureaucracy—including a proposal to eliminate a program promoting democracy and human rights in Cuba—it’s not clear whether the president really intends to follow through on that kind of big-government initiative, or whether he’s just throwing red meat to a hungry slice of his base. Even if his administration is serious about pursuing much more intense federal regulation of “people-to-people” and “educational” travel, the new rules could take years to finalize. For example, the Treasury Department warned yesterday that American travelers will be required to join tour groups rather than plan their own itineraries, and that those tours “must not include free time or recreation in excess.” It’s anyone’s guess how regulators would define excessively leisurely travel plans.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio and other supporters of Trump’s changes argue that through hassles as well as mandates, the new policies will discourage U.S. travelers from putting money into Cuban government coffers—and ultimately force the Cuban government to give its own citizens more freedom. Of course, that was the original argument for the embargo, which has kept U.S. exports and investments out of Cuba for half a century without prompting any major advances in freedom or changes in regime. It has also provided a perpetual talking point for the Cuban government, which routinely blames “the American blockade” for Cuba’s dismal economic record under Communist rule. The Obama thaw took some punch out of that argument, but Trump is a newly convenient scapegoat. On our trip, two different Cubans told us they felt sorry for us because of our new president, which was not something we ever expected to hear from subjects of Raul Castro.

In any case, Rubio and the hard-liners do not speak for all Cuban-Americans, who tend to divide along lines of age and national origin. A Bendixen & Amandi poll found that 53 percent of the Cuban-born opposed Obama’s normalization efforts, while 64 percent of the American-born supported them. Overall, a slim majority of Cuban-Americans supported the thaw, while a large majority of Cuban-American seniors opposed it. Those older exiles who fled after the revolution were Trump’s target audience yesterday. After all, they helped send him to the White House, a favor he repeatedly reminded them his new policies were designed to return—a bit of a turnabout for a hotelier who has scouted locations in Cuba.

Bendixen & Amandi also polled Cuban nationals in 2015, and what they found echoed the grumbling we heard last week on the ground: Cubans are down on their government. This is partly because of repression—short-term detentions of dissidents are on the rise, while dissident blogs (as well as porn) are blocked on the Internet—but mostly because of the lousy state-run economy. More than two thirds of Cubans said they were satisfied with their health care system—my father-in-law had to visit a clinic, and got excellent treatment plus prescription drugs at zero cost—but only two fifths were satisfied with their political system, and just one fifth with their economic system. And that was before the Venezuelan economy totally collapsed, depriving Cuba of its ideologically driven subsidies. The poll also found that 70 percent of Cubans would like to open a business, something they can only do now if they get a license to pursue one of 201 government-approved professions, ranging from “disposable lighter repair” to “piñata maker/seller” to “button coverer.”

***

We got a sense of that entrepreneurial spirit when we knocked on the door of my father-in-law’s childhood home in Camaguey, a once-prosperous agricultural center with maze-like streets supposedly designed to confuse the pirates who periodically preyed on locals. It’s not prosperous anymore, and the woman who answered the door told us the house has been subdivided into a dozen or so modest apartments. (We later found one that was less modest and newly renovated; unsurprisingly, the owners were a military officer and a government official.) Hers included the home’s grand foyer, which still had the original pink-and-green floral tile, but was now a bit grimy because she makes some money by charging commuters to park their bicycles there during business hours. “We all do what we can to live,” she told us.

In Old Havana, a similarly entrepreneurial taxi driver named Lazaro gave us a ride in his 1955 Crown Victoria; his grandfather, a chauffeur, had inherited the car from a sugar-baron client who fled Cuba after the revolution. Lazaro had spent five years as a nurse in Venezuela, but realized he could make more money driving tourists at home; he said his business really took off with female clients after he painted the Crown Vic pink. He said he recently made $800 in three days when his car was used in the film Fast and Furious 8, which sounded impressive, except he said a pal had made $80,000 by letting the moviemakers drive his own vintage car into Havana Harbor. Even better, his pal had salvaged the wreck and repaired it to working condition.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Cuba is full of necessity; one Camaguey woman was selling pigeon eggs out of her foyer. There are certainly glimmers of a private economy that didn’t exist a decade ago. Airbnb reports its bookings have funneled $40 million to ordinary Cubans since 2015. Families are running restaurants out of their homes that seem less likely to serve bread that tastes like cardboard or “beef” made from horsemeat. Data mules go door-to-door selling external hard drives known as “paquetes” that provide a week worth of news, films and TV dramas for Cubans without Internet access. And it’s no surprise that 96 percent of Cubans told Bendixen & Amandi that more tourism would benefit Cuba, because many of those approved professions—from bike-taxi drivers to “habaneras” who dress up in colonial garb to pose for photos—depend on visitors.

Still, the monopoly force of the government hovers over the private economy. The police confiscate the bike taxis of drivers caught pedaling their customers the wrong way on one-way streets. Cubans can rent out their property, but they’re not allowed to own multiple properties. My father-in-law, Humberto Dominguez, an Orlando-area family doctor who is one of those communist-hating, Trump-supporting Cuban exiles, was favorably impressed with the rare-in-the-tropics cleanliness and safety of Cuba’s streets, until I reminded him that police states tend to be pretty good about that kind of thing.

Anyway, most of Cuba’s economy is still a government-run system that simply doesn’t work. Communist-controlled stores tend to be laughably overstaffed—usually by sales associates who betray no interest in sales—and undersupplied. We saw an appliance store with only one brand of refrigerator, a medical-supply store that carried only towels and laundry detergent, and a massive window display for a home furnishings store that featured just one pinkish vase in the corner. We met a bookstore manager who seemed genuinely distraught about the turgid revolutionary tracts and anti-American propaganda she had to sell. Her shelves included only one American author, the leftist Naomi Klein.

In many ways, normalization hasn’t lived up to the hype. Obama allowed Americans credit card companies to do business in Cuba, but most haven’t. The opening was supposed to upgrade Cuba’s dismal telecom infrastructure and bring Internet to the masses, but that hasn’t happened either. The tentative steps toward engagement between American and Cuban diplomats have slowed, as both sides have waited to see what the Trump era would bring. Still, the opening has generated some positive economic activity, even though the negatives of the Venezuelan meltdown have overshadowed it. Former Miami congressman Joe Garcia, who spent years shaming political deviants from the hard-line exile position as director of the Cuban American National Foundation, has become a political deviant himself; he no longer believes that isolating Cuba will do any good for the Cuban people.

“We’ve seen more change in the last two years than we had seen in the last 50,” Garcia said. “Obviously it’s not enough change. But at least now you can get a croqueta in Havana and have a decent chance there will be real ham in it.”

***

The question is whether Trump’s policy tweaks will reverse or accelerate those modest gains. My father-in-law is in some ways a classically tribal Cuban exile—an ardent supporter of the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party, and the United States of America. He thinks Obama spent too much time apologizing for America, like a typical liberal, and he trusts Trump to stand up for the greatest country on earth. But as deeply as Humberto loathes the Castros and the Communist Party, he’s agnostic about the longstanding embargo, because of the old saying about doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And he’s not one of the Cuban exiles who think visiting the island merely provides aid and comfort to an evil regime. He doesn’t have close living relatives here anymore, but this was his second time back. Cuba has meaning to him.

Obama made it relatively easy for Americans like Humberto to hop a flight to Cuba—and Cubans to get multiple-entry visas to visit America. On Wednesday morning, I was a few blocks from the U.S. embassy in Havana, and I saw a crowd of several hundred Cubans gathering like there was some kind of event happening; there were even parking attendants in red vests directing traffic. I asked a 37-year-old cook named Maria what was going on, and she said people were just lining up to apply for visas and other U.S. travel documents. I asked if there was something special happening that day. No, she said, it’s just Wednesday.

“This is normal now,” she said.

I asked her what she thought would happen to that new normal if Trump cracked down on travel.

“That would move everything backwards,” she said with the resigned air of a citizen unaccustomed to controlling her own destiny. “But what can you do?’

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