Trump a big question mark for people in Cuba

Whither U.S.-Cuba relations — A man listens to music while sitting on the seawall along Havana’s Malecón as daily life resumes in the capital city following a nine-day mourning period after the death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Whither U.S.-Cuba relations — A man listens to music while sitting on the seawall along Havana’s Malecón as daily life resumes in the capital city following a nine-day mourning period after the death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Getty Images

As Cubans adjust to life without revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, they are also trying to get their minds around what the election of another world leader — President-elect Donald Trump — might mean for their lives and the future of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.

But on the second anniversary of the surprise announcement on Dec. 17, 2014 that the United States and Cuba planned to work toward normalizing their troubled relationship, there are more questions than clarity.

In the week leading up to Castro’s funeral on Dec. 5, Cubans across the island talked about Trump, the future of Cuba’s relationship with the U.S., and their worries about the sluggish Cuban economy and the steady stream of young people abandoning the island to make their way to the United States.

“I think all U.S. presidents must rise to a certain standard to reach such a high office,” said Angel Ysern, a doctor from Santa Clara, opening the conversation on a diplomatic note. “But after the last few years of tranquility under President Obama, Trump seems a bit aggressive, very strong. We’re in the 20th century now. We can’t go back to the Cold War. I just hope we don’t lose what’s been accomplished under Obama.”

“We’re seeing real progress that is making life better for Cubans right now,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of the architects of the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, said during a news briefing earlier this week. But he said there is “plenty of space for improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.”

For Cubans on the island trying to read the tea leaves on what they might expect from the next U.S. president, information is limited. But they’ve managed to piece together their opinions from Cuban media and reports from Venezuela’s Telesur on Trump's statements and Tweets about Cuba, conversations with friends and family in Cuba and the United States, talks with visiting Americans and to a lesser degree access to the internet.

During the early part of his campaign, Trump didn’t appear to oppose engagement with Cuba but said he would get a deal than the one forged by President Barack Obama. More recently he has talked of potentially scrapping the normalization process and Cubans are concerned that small improvements that have resulted from the new relationship may be lost.

In his most recent Tweet on Cuba on Nov. 28 — three days after Castro’s death, Trump said: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

Rhodes said he hopes the next administration will push for greater U.S. business involvement on the island and more internet access and space for independent civil society in Cuba.

Critics say Obama has overreached in six rounds of regulatory changes that have opened U.S. travel and commerce opportunities on the island.

In addition to renewing diplomatic relations and reopening respective embassies, Rhodes ticked off what he considers accomplishments of the rapprochement: a 75 percent increase in travel by Americans to Cuba, 10 U.S. airlines flying regularly scheduled flights to several Cuban cities, cruise lines authorized to sail Cuban itineraries, an increase in cultural, educational and athletic exchanges, and 11 agreements with Cuba on everything from cancer research and counter narcotics to protection of marine environments and direct mail service.

Even though the embargo is still in place, new regulations have allowed U.S. companies more leeway to operate in Cuba in the hospitality, travel, aviation, telecommunications, banking, and credit card industries. Business deals have been slow to gel, although in recent weeks the pace has picked up with approvals for Google to install servers that increase speeds to reach Google products and for multiple cruise lines to call in Cuba.

“We want trade, travel, technology with the United States,” said Ysern, the Santa Clara doctor. “The Cuban people are always ready for whatever comes, but the population wants tranquility, peace, not aggression from the United States. We want a better relationship.”

“The revolution will continue on its path,” said Manuel Rondón Medina, a retired cultural promoter from Santiago. “But we’re near neighbors and we don’t have to be forever...” He paused and then smacked his fists together to indicate fighting.

“The new government in the United States should take into account the progress President Obama has made after more than 50 years of non-relations,” he said.

Seventy-two-year-old Eugenia Migalina Ramos, who lives in Ranchuelo, a small central Cuba town where life revolves around the sugar mill and agriculture, wasn’t exactly sure of the president-elect’s name, but she had heard about him. “The people say he is bad and I’ve heard he is going to tighten the screws on the Cuban people.”

“I am sure he is a fraud. I have heard he is a millionaire,” she said. “But man doesn’t live from bread alone.”

Tania Pérez, who manages a vegetable warehouse in Ranchuelo, said she’s concerned about the high numbers of young people who believe the solution to their economic difficulties is to abandon the island in hopes of reaching the United States.

“The young people who leave are pursuing the American dream — and for some of them it doesn’t turn out to be such a dream,” she said. “But they are leaving because of economic problems.”

It’s unclear whether Trump will tackle the current preferential treatment for Cuban migrants under the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet-foot/dry-foot policy as part of his new immigration policy.

Pérez also is wary of what a Trump presidency may bring. “I saw some of his campaign speeches and I believe there were a lot of inconsistencies. We’ll have to wait and see in January — see if relations with the United States continue, see if the U.S. Embassy in Havana keeps operating.

“I hope things work out for the benefit of everyone. We have so many family members there [in the United States],” she said.

Since Obama took office, a remittance limit of $300 every three months to close relatives has been lifted, allowing unlimited money transfers to the island by Cuban-Americans. Last year, remittances from the United States totaled more than $3 billion, helping some families keep afloat financially and fueling small private businesses.

The new ease of travel between the United States and Cuba also has helped pump up remittances.

Cubans worry if a Trump administration unravels the normalization process, that remittance pipeline could dry up. “The flights and remittances are very important to us,” said Ysern.

When the rapprochement was announced two years ago, Cubans hoped a new relationship with the United States might rapidly perk up their ailing economy, and many say they are disappointed there haven’t been more dramatic changes.

Still, those who work in the hospitality industry or who are employed in jobs where they interact with American companies or visitors, say the new relationship has made a difference.

Earlier this month, a group of more than 100 Cuban private business owners sent a letter to Trump urging him to build on the Obama opening and do more: “As a successful businessman, we’re confident that you understand the importance of economic engagement between nations. Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community.

“Additional measures to increase travel and trade and investment, including working with the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, will benefit our companies,” they said.

Signatories included owners of private restaurants, bed and breakfasts and design studios, clothing makers, event planners, private taxi drivers, the operators of a vintage car service and other service businesses.

Four of the entrepreneurs recently traveled to Washington to take part in a press conference with a bipartisan coalition of legislators, business leaders and other advocates who favor lifting the embargo.

Julia de la Rosa and her husband Silvio Ortega have been slowly and painstakingly renovating a 1938 mansion for more than 20 years and have turned it into La Rosa de Ortega, a bed and breakfast in La Vibora on the outskirts of Havana with stylish rooms and its own swimming pool.

Since San Francisco-based Airbnb launched its online booking service for home stays in Cuba in April 2015, de la Rosa said the couple’s business has grown dramatically and they have increased their employees to 17 workers.

“I hope that President-elect Trump recognizes how much these changes have helped us. We don’t want to go back; we don’t want to focus on our differences,” de la Rosa said at the press conference. “We want to improve our relations with the U.S. and think about the future and what our two countries can accomplish together.”

Manrique Nistal Bello, who rents out two rooms in his home near Parque Cespedes in Santiago, wasn’t among the signatories to the letter but he also hopes Trump the businessman is the one who will emerge when it comes to Cuba policy.

“In my opinion and with my experience in life, I would say Trump will be a good negotiator. He will do things in the interest of the United States,” he said. “But he’s a businessman and I don’t think that would include ending the flights and everything that’s been done under Obama.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi