Traveling Cuba After Trump

In the midst of a delicate détente with the United States, the island isn’t quite sure what to make of the president-elect.

J. E. McBride
Dec 9, 2016 · 10 min read
Crumbling buildings in Old Havana. (Photo: Author)


The immigration officer, a young woman in an impeccably starched uniform, stared at me from the other side of the plexiglass. Her eyes darted from my face to my passport, and back again. She frowned.

I willed myself to be calm. Hoping she couldn’t pick up on the effort, I smiled. But not too broadly. “Si. Estados Unidos.”

“Give me a moment.”

The moment felt interminable. She went to confer with a plainclothes officer that had stood watching us navigate the crush of humanity passing through immigration control. The still air of the hangar, already hot in the afternoon sun, was thick with dust, buzzing flies, and the nervous energy of arrivals.

Returning to her seat, she resumed the interview.

“So. What do you think about Trump?”

When we touched down in Camagüey, a modest provincial city rising from the rolling farmland of central Cuba, I knew this question would come. Gauging the reaction here was one reason I had wanted to make my trip immediately after the election. Though I can’t say I expected it to be an explicit litmus test for my entry onto Cuban soil.

But I was no longer worried — I was pretty sure I knew the right answer.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising.

Over the next ten days of traversing the island from east to west, discussing the U.S. election brought to the surface a rich and contradictory mix of bewilderment, dread, resignation, and even hope. Even before the death of Fidel Castro unsettled matters further, uncertainty over Trump pervaded nearly all conversations.

President Obama’s push to normalize relations with Cuba was, from the beginning, both momentous and potentially ephemeral.

The direct talks between U.S. and Cuban officials that took place between 2013 and 2014, prodded along by the good offices of the Vatican, were indeed unprecedented. The return of a U.S. embassy to Havana and the loosening of American investment and travel restrictions were previously unthinkable while a Castro ruled in Havana.

But Obama has repeatedly turned to executive orders in order to get around stubborn lawmakers, and Cuba was no exception. What one president authorizes with the stroke of a pen can be undone by the next. Only Congress has the authority to fully revoke the complex suite of laws that make up the U.S. embargo, which has shut Cuba off from nearly all American commerce for more than fifty years.

Graffiti in Santa Clara: “Opinion poll!! Why all this hate for America?” (Photo: Author)

Congress has demonstrated less than zero appetite for that. Florida Senator Marco Rubio made rolling back the deal a centerpiece of his campaign for president. Other leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Arizona Senator John McCain, agreed.

And the president-elect? Well, he has wasted no time threatening to “terminate” Obama’s policy. But as usual with Trump’s statements, there is less there than meets the eye. Early in his campaign, he called the Cuba opening “fine.” Only later, as the nominee, did he take a harder stance.

Trump’s insurgency centered on deriding Washington’s hawkish consensus.

Lest anyone forget, a huge part of Trump’s insurgency centered on deriding the partisans of the hawkish consensus that has come to dominate Washington, DC. He denigrated the war hero McCain, ritually humiliated the GOP’s anointed dynast, Jeb Bush, and wielded schoolyard taunts to mock the up-and-coming Rubio into stuttering submission.

In other words, Trump’s consistent, if half-baked, pushback on the foreign policy establishment — much of which has bashed Obama’s policy — is the closest he’s come to something resembling a coherent worldview.

Admittedly, it’s not much for backers of the Cuba opening to hang their hat on. Especially after Trump appointed an outspoken critic of Obama’s policy, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to a prominent spot on his transition team. Claver-Carone points to the rise in political detentions since 2014 and argues that the Cuban state’s monopoly on almost all economic activity means that every additional U.S. dollar spent there only strengthens the Castro regime.

What polling exists, however, shows that most Cubans support the opening, even as they harbor few illusions that it will change their political system.

Their positive outlook is unsurprising given the centrality of tourism to Cuba’s stagnant economy. More disoriented Americans stumbling about means more opportunities to earn valuable convertible pesos (CUCs), an alternative currency centered on the tourist economy and pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Distribution of rationed goods in Havana. (Photo: Author)

To a person, everyone I spoke with expressed their hope that the opening would continue. “Things have to change,” was a phrase I heard reproduced almost verbatim by taxi drivers, hostel owners, professors, and produce vendors.

“Americans have to come and see that we aren’t living in hell like they’ve been told,” a Cuban friend pontificated over his tumbler of rum. (It was a point at least partially undermined by the fact that he actually lives in Europe, an escape that opinion polls also show more than half of Cubans would like to pull off.)

Trump himself garnered a less than positive reaction. But some worried Cubans (perhaps not unlike some Americans) took solace in his self-involved nature.

As another man insisted to me on a Havana sidewalk where we stood smoking: “El es negociante. Punto.” He’s a businessman, period. “What matters to him is investments, trade, business. He will continue the changes.”

“He’s a businessman, period.”

It was an unusually open public exchange in a country where most of my politically-tinged conversations took place in a corner of a smoky bar or the privacy of the home. The Cubans I met weren’t exactly afraid of sharing their opinions, but they were prudent about it. They only opened up after feeling out the conversation, and this inquisitive Spanish-babbling American, to their satisfaction.

More often than not, I was the one being interrogated. What I thought about Cuba, why Trump had won, and, most importantly, what he will do next. I struggled to convey just how little anyone — likely even Trump himself — knows about what is to come.

Then there is Fidel.

Ah, the ironies of history: The man who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, survived countless assassination attempts, and threw himself into numerous semi-suicidal guerrilla assaults ended up dying peacefully at home, age 90.

The obituaries were already written, waiting patiently in newsroom desk drawers. But the debate over his legacy is just getting started.

In particular, the jury is still out on how much Fidel’s death will alter the regime’s tentative embrace of market-based reforms. The most recent measures were ushered in by Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl Castro, who has ruled the country since 2006.

Even if relations with the United States were to worsen, Raúl’s changes would likely prove much harder to rein back in. In 2011, the state began reducing government payrolls, permitting Cubans to buy and sell real estate, and allowing more small businesses in areas ranging from restaurants to barbershops.

Cuba’s cuentapropistas include some intrepid taxi drivers still manning 1950s Chevys. (Photo: Author)

These self-employed cuentapropistas, (those that “count on themselves”) include the quickly expanding casa particulares, or rented rooms in private homes. Owners complain of high taxes and other difficulties, but the casas are nonetheless a rare opportunity for Cubans to earn hard currency well in excess of an average salary.

This fledgling culture of entrepreneurship was clearly visible in Havana — and not just in the proliferating advertisements, only recently permitted, for the casas.

It had seeped into some curious places. Attending Mass at the Cathedral of San Cristobal in Old Havana, church bulletins featured reflections on “business values,” exhorting enterprising Cubans on the proper treatment of customers and employees. Later, during the candlelit procession of San Cristobal, which marks the 1519 founding of Havana, the city’s archbishop led congregants in a prayer of blessing for “our cuentapropistas.”

The procession of San Cristobal through the streets of Havana. (Photo: Author)

Only feet away from the path of that procession, a different kind of flock gathered: Hundreds of Cubans crowded the sidewalks around a public wifi hotspot — another recent Raúl innovation. They whiled away the warm evening checking email and video chatting with loved ones.

Normalization was a calculated gamble for both sides. The Obama administration bet that an opening, however small, would start a chain reaction that would make economic and political reform irreversible, and an end to the embargo inevitable.

Raúl bet that he could use isolated fragments of capitalism to boost Cuba’s suffocated economy while still maintaining his tight grasp on the country.

The outcomes of both wagers are now precarious. Trump looks poised to reverse U.S. policy, or at least go back to the table to demand more concessions from the Cuban regime. Meanwhile, even Raúl’s baby steps have begun reshaping the country, leading to 500,000 new business owners, millions of dollars of American investment, and a generation of smartphone-toting young Cubans.

“We do not need the empire to give us anything.”

In public, at least, the regime has not backed off its defiant anti-American stance. Visitors to Havana are still greeted with billboards declaring the U.S. embargo “the longest genocide in history.” Elsewhere in the capital, newer posters chide Obama: “Normalization is incompatible with an embargo!”

Several days after the U.S. election, I opened the state-owned newspaper, Granma, to find assurances that nationwide military exercises were necessary preparation against “any threat or aggression from the enemy.”

In the months before his death, Fidel had made no secret of his skepticism toward his brother’s embrace of the young, charismatic American president. After Obama made the first presidential visit to Cuba since 1928, Fidel had penned a bitter op-ed in Granma.

“We do not need the empire to give us anything,” he wrote.

My last day in Cuba, I sat with a friend in the central square of Santa Clara, a university town in the center of the country. The sky was clear and brilliant, and the park was packed with the Sunday crowd: rambunctious toddlers, strolling couples, bored teenagers.

As we smoked our cigars, an old man hobbled across the plaza and took a seat on the bench next to us. He nodded in greeting.

For a long while he sat in silence, pretending not to listen to our English conversation. Finally, almost apologetically, he spoke up: “You are Americans?”

We talked for some time about our visit, our impressions of Cuba, and the changes he has witnessed in recent years. He apologized repeatedly for only speaking Spanish. “For an old man like me it’s too late to learn English,” he grinned through an almost toothless smile. “Not like the youngsters these days.”

As he stood to take his leave, he turned abruptly serious.

“I have to say, from the heart,” he patted his chest, “It makes me so happy that you’re here. I’m so happy to see you young folk sitting here, talking to people, mixing with the people. I don’t know if things are going to change now, but I hope this continues.”

It was a touching sentiment. But after traveling across the country I couldn’t help but wonder how Cuba could keep from being overwhelmed.

Morning in Trinidad, Cuba. (Photo: Author)

Its charmingly crumbling infrastructure seemed like no match for the hundreds of thousands of additional Americans that are likely just around the corner. Even with travel restrictions still in place and flights only servicing provincial cities, U.S. visitors have increased by more than 80 percent so far in 2016.

It’s not just the gorgeous Fifties-era cars, many of which are miraculously in working order. Cuba’s highways are gouged with potholes, its bus system is already stretched beyond its limits, and its hostels struggle to keep enough toilet paper and soap on hand.

To take advantage of — or even simply survive — a new wave of tourism, the island needs investment. The kind of investment that communism isn’t providing — and that the United States could provide, but may now turn its back on.

Without the embargo, the onus would be on the regime to manage the weight of the U.S. economy.

In this sense, the American embargo has relieved the Castros of much of the burden of navigating the choppy waters of economic globalization. Could this tiny society (GDP: about $80 billion) really bear the full weight of the U.S. economy (GDP: about $18 trillion) while retaining its Marxist-Leninist character? Without the embargo, the onus would be on the regime to manage the aggressive flows of capital, people, and goods that would come knocking on Cuba’s door.

That could prove a difficult balancing act even for the most competent of despots.

Ultimately, Cubans appear ready to run that risk.

When questioned about the election that first day at the arrivals desk in Camagüey, I had taken a moment to think of a response that would appease the officer while still hedging my bets.

“I think it’s all a mess,” I told her. “Personally, I prefer Obama.” This had the added benefit of being the truth.

Her interrogatory stone face had melted, ever so slightly. She gave me a conspiratorial smirk: “I think we all did.”

Whether the regime hardliners in Havana will agree remains to be seen.

J.E. McBride is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is on Twitter every once in a while.

J. E. McBride

Written by

Writer, editor.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade