Trump – The View From Havana

What does the President-elect mean for Cuba? As with most things Trump, nobody can say quite yet. International Boulevard’s Mateo Jarquin did, however, happen to be in Havana when Americans cast their ballots, and thus got a sense of how Cubans viewed the election and its consequences for their future.

The first thing worth mentioning is that while Cubans remain unusually sealed-off from the rest of the world – they rely overwhelmingly on state-controlled media, and must pay an expensive rate of 2 dollars per hour for internet access – they followed the U.S. election closely. In Havana, everybody I asked had an informed opinion on the contest (maybe I was only engaging with Cuba’s “coastal elites,” but they all preferred well-liked Obama’s chosen successor over the Republicans’ vulgar, buffoonish nominee). And state television gave ample coverage to the campaign, with the popular news show Mesa Redonda routinely displaying the latest projections by Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver and the New York Times’ Upshot blog, complete with a hyperactive journalist re-arranging red and blue states on a TV screen in the delirious style of CNN’s John King. In the past, the Cuban regime has discouraged public discussion of the democratic process in the U.S., but they’ve eased those restrictions during the past few years of normalization with Washington. Besides, the embarrassing, circus-like quality of the 2016 campaign meant that, like Russia’s RT and Venezuela’s Telesur, Cuban state media could feast on the apparent hypocrisy and emptiness of political participation in the U.S.

Discussion of this year’s election revealed much about the way Cubans perceive American politics in general. In a speech he gave to the Cuban Communist Party earlier this year, President Raúl Castro called U.S. elections a sham, arguing that the country’s billionaire oligarchy controls government and that differences between Republicans and Democrats are entirely superficial. “It’s as if we had two parties in Cuba and Fidel led one and I led the other,” he quipped. Castro’s joke (which is admittedly hilarious, although partly because it’s an oddly self-condemning way to put U.S. democracy on blast) reflects the widely-held view in Cuba that transitions in the American executive don’t augur major policy changes.

This makes sense from their perspective. After all, the Cuban Revolution has witnessed 9 presidential transitions over the last 60 years yet the major outlines of Washington’s policy toward the island – the use of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation in the pursuit of regime change – have stayed the same regardless of which party was in power. By those standards, the Obama administration’s recent thaw has been truly historic, but the fact remains that the embargo – or “blockade,” as Cubans know it – persists and the base at Guantanamo is still open. So when I asked my neighbor – a retired military officer – about her thoughts on the election, she tepidly endorsed Hillary Clinton but emphasized that it didn’t matter much because no new administration would right those major wrongs anyway. “Relations with them have always been bad,” she reminded me.

On November 9th, people around the world woke up to apocalyptic headlines and mass confusion but it was business as usual in Havana. Granma, the main state-run newspaper, reported Trump’s victory as a surprise but didn’t bemoan the collapse of the global liberal order or anything like that. At a personal level, as I struggled to come to terms with the news of Trump’s victory, Cubans’ reactions – which ranged from casual indifference to mild amusement – provided a soothing counterpoint to the generalized hysteria which had invaded my news and social media feeds. They were immune to the post-Trump blues (perhaps this was Fidel’s final anti-imperialist oeuvre) because they didn’t think that U.S. democracy was real enough to produce meaningful change, for better or worse. My impression was that most Cubans, for the same reason that they believe a new President won’t resist the powers that be and close Guantanamo, think that Trump will leave recent changes – like the easing of restrictions on U.S. travel to the island and investment there – in place.

The problem for Cubans is that U.S. democracy, for all its flaws, isn’t a sham. Trump will nominate conservative Supreme Court justices and he’ll back GOP efforts to repeal and (maybe?) replace Obamacare. That simply means being faithful to the people who voted for him and responding to the policy preferences of the coalition that he’ll ask to re-elect him in four years. For the same reason, he may choose to reverse the Obama administration’s modest normalization of relations with Cuba. Based on his promises to do so, Trump carried the Cuban-American vote that helped him win the decisive state of Florida.

The truth, for better or worse, is that we have no clue what the new U.S.-Cuba policy will look like. Ironically, a hostile Trump administration might be viewed favorably by some hardliners in the Cuban leadership. Political scientist and retired diplomat Carlos Alzugaray notes that some military officials have been opposed to rapprochement and “think that a situation of confrontation is better for the revolution.” On the other hand, perhaps Trump will decide that, as Harvard Professor Jorge Domínguez recently explained, “a lot of what has been built cooperatively between the U.S. and Cuba serves not just the U.S. agenda but the Trump agenda.” Domínguez cites the example of Trump’s tough stance on immigration: what country in the world is as deeply committed as Cuba to preventing its own citizens from migrating to the U.S.?

Cuban officials may balk at this commitment, one which obviously suits the incoming White House, if Washington suddenly reverses agreements made during previous administrations.

But again, who knows? I left Cuba just a few days before authorities announced that Fidel Castro had died. In response to his passing, Trump cryptically tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” before releasing a lengthier statement in which he proposed to terminate existing agreements if the regime “is unwilling to make a better deal with the Cuban people,” ostensibly in the realm of human rights and democracy.

I won’t presume to know how basic rights, civil society, and an open political system might flourish in Cuba; as independent journalist Elaine Díaz recently argued in response to Trump’s tweets, that task falls to the Cubans themselves and any attempt to link democracy activism and social movements to U.S. foreign policy will almost certainly backfire.

What I can say after spending a few weeks in Havana, however, is that normalization has set off a boom in the still-tiny private economy that Cubans desperately depend on. Whether it means renting out property or providing extra services to foreign tourists or fellow Cubans, the new economy provides a supplementary source of income which has become essential given the insufficiency of state-guaranteed salaries and the surprisingly high costs of basic goods (even though things such as healthcare, housing, transportation, and education are all covered by the state). Of course, this market activity only exists because the regime has gradually permitted the modest privatization of certain sectors of the economy, but it also wouldn’t be possible without the dramatic increase in remittances that could also be in jeopardy if Trump reinstates previous restrictions on cash flows from the United States.

Major steps forward in Cuban-U.S. relations are likely out of the question during the next presidency, but smaller steps backward in more mundane areas could have a swift and devastating impact on the island’s population. After 60 years of failed American policy toward Cuba, its citizens understandably don’t expect that things will improve anytime soon – but they could certainly get worse.

Mateo Jarquin