They’re watching closely to see if Trump’s talk of a harsh crackdown is bluster or real policy.
HAVANA — The Cuban government these days is a confused mess of anger, hope and resignation when it comes to the communist country’s relationship with the United States.
They love Barack Obama, but feel like he left them short with changes that didn’t go as far as they could have. They hate Donald Trump, but relish how his revival of the Cuba-vs.-America routine has reconnected them to the Cuban people. They want American cash and credit to start freely flowing, but are worried about capitalism creeping in and completely rewiring their world.
Most of all, they’re anxious about whether — and how — Trump will follow through on his vague but stridently delivered promise last month to rip up Obama’s policy of engagement and get tougher on the isolated island.
They’re anxious enough that they’re willing to talk aggressively to a group of American reporters, but are only willing to do so anonymously, wary of picking a fight with Trump.
Trump wants to take Cuba on again? Fine, Cuban officials say. He wants to keep the embargo? Also fine.
“They have not learned in 55 years that we don’t care,” a top foreign ministry official said last week, indignantly.
Point out that this is transparently not true, that they obviously do care intensely about America and can barely go 10 minutes without railing against the embargo, and this is the concession: “We care, but we don’t die. We have survived.”
Two days after the election, Trump sat in the Oval Office and told Obama he understood the reasons behind the changes on Cuba, according to a former administration official. Trump called them positive — “I’m an entrepreneur,” he said, according to the official — but also said he had political support from hardliners in Florida, and acknowledged that might corner him.
The Trump White House didn’t respond to emails to dispute or comment on this account.
Eight months later, and a month since Trump flew to Miami and stood at a theater named after a Bay of Pigs veteran to announce he’d thrown in with the hardliners, the administration has yet to explain exactly what will happen, when it’s going to be announced, how it’s going to be enforced, or when any of it will take effect.
New policy is supposed to come within 90 days — after the Treasury and Commerce departments draft new regulations — though it’s not clear if September is when the new policy will be announced, or be in effect, or even if that’s just when the actual process of developing it would begin.
As they always do, the Cubans are watching closely, whether they are government officials in communist conference rooms insisting the government only needs “updating” not “reforming,” or well-funded app developers kicking back in first class under their designer sunglasses on the now easy flights back and forth to Miami.
“We know in the United States, first there is the announcement, then the implementation. Then, interpretation,” said Maria de la Luz B’Hamel Ramirez, director of North American policy at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment.
Raúl Castro told the Cuban National Assembly last Friday that Trump has turned to “old and hostile rhetoric,” and made a comment about the president having bad advisers and how the United States has no standing to complain about human rights.
But Castro has been careful not to go too hard, people in and around the government here say. He’s wary of overreacting to changes he’s gambling might turn out to be less severe than advertised, and wary of picking a fight when he’s seen how much Trump policy can be guided by Trump pique.
“What we had so far was just a speech. We haven’t seen an impact,” said Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila, the vice-minister of transportation, speaking through a translator across a table with fake plants sprouting through the middle and a “Here We Never Surrender” founders mural in the lobby, at almost the same time Castro was speaking. “We have our projects, and we will move ahead. President Trump and his advisers, they’re the only ones who know what they’re talking about.”
With lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) cheering him on, Trump forcefully announced in Miami on June 16 that he was canceling Obama’s “terrible and misguided” policy toward Cuba, as he railed against Cuba government repression.
“Those days are over,” Trump said. “Now, we hold the cards.”
How he’ll play those cards remains unclear. His aides said he will prohibit any commercial transactions with businesses owned by Cuba’s military and will toughen up some tourist travel restrictions, but much may stay the same. Trump is expected to maintain diplomatic relations, airline flights and cruise travel, and the legality of other commercial transactions, but may cut back on individual travel, and they’ve pledged to create a system of requiring visitors to keep receipts for five years to verify they stayed away from military-owned properties. The White House also didn’t respond to questions about the current status of Trump’s new Cuba policy, or how they’d allocate the additional staff and resources needed to enforce any of this.
Cubans have reoriented quickly since November. Despite what they’d heard from Trump on the trail, after Obama, the Cuban government was for the first time with a new American president trying to be open-minded, thinking maybe this was a new era after all.
“No one told me, but I understood that the approach was to give Trump the benefit of the doubt: ‘Okay, he’s the president,’” said Cristina Escobar, one of the lead anchors on state-run Televisión Cubana, in a special episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast recorded here in Havana.
The benefit of the doubt, Escobar said, extended even through Trump’s “Fidel Castro is dead!” tweet and a follow-up statement calling him a “brutal dictator” with a legacy of “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” The Cuban government tried to hold to that benefit of the doubt through Trump’s inauguration, through the quiet negotiations about what the new Cuban policy should be, all the way through June 16 — a date that Cubans now tend to use as shorthand, the same way many refer just to December 17, which was the day in 2014 that Obama and Cuba announced the reopening.
“He was not in office. So it was him talking on Twitter. We understand that he is not a rational person on Twitter, so he tends to be very emotional, so he says things that and—so I think it was wise of the Cuban government, and of ourselves, to not just go alone with the last wave of emotion of the president,” Escobar said. “So, let’s wait to see what’s going to happen, what it’s going to do.”
Internet access is only available through the home connections available to the wealthy, or at zones in parks and around hotels where Cubans clump together, holding out their iPhones for 2002-in-America-era GPRS signals.
But U.S. culture is everywhere: leading reporters through the city, the foreign ministry press liaison’s phone rings with the theme from “Game of Thrones”—a show that’s only available here on the paqueta terabyte drives sold weekly on the black market, which likely use pirated signals on government antennas that can pull American TV.
It’s not just entertainment. Cubans also know the details of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, what’s going on with Obamacare repeal. They joke about “fake news” and the president’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, do Trump impressions with Spanish-inflected attempted Queens accents.
And they all seem to hate Rubio, who proposed the regulations for Trump on behalf of the Cuban people and against the government. Bureaucrats, artists, business owners, tour guides, just about anyone, rush to point out that he’s never visited the island as if it’s constant breaking news.
“Little Marco and Trump with the short hands? Come on,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union who stays in close touch with Cuban officials.
Asked what would happen if Rubio came, Alzugaray said, “we’d have to surround him — otherwise they’d lynch him.”
At the American Embassy, reopened in 2015 by John Kerry, the flag still flies, though longtime chargé d’affairs Jeffrey DeLaurentis quietly left the island last week after hosting his final July 4th barbecue. (Obama’s nomination of DeLaurentis to be ambassador to Cuba last September went nowhere; Trump hasn’t said yet whether he’ll nominate anyone, and embassy aides tell Cubans they don’t know if anyone else is coming.)
The equipment is still there on the outer wall of the fifth floor for the anti-Castro news ticker installed during George W. Bush’s administration, the last time the hard line rose in Washington. But it’s still turned off.
Across the street at Anti-Imperialism Plaza, the statue of Cuban founding father José Martí, depicted holding Elián González, pointing his finger aggressively at the embassy to stay away is still there, too. So are the 138 poles put up to fly black flags honoring Cuban victims of American terrorism — but really, to block anyone from seeing the ticker—though they are bare for now too, the flags taken down after Obama turned the ticker off.
The markets where Cubans buy their monthly rations tend to have as many photos of Castro hanging on the walls as there are cans of food on the shelves, but for visitors, new shops and restaurants are exploding out of crumbling buildings every week. That’s also now caught in limbo, with local business owners reporting a rush of tourism after Obama’s trip but significant cancellations since Trump’s announcement.
Eight law enforcement working groups on issues including money laundering, cybersecurity, trade security and drug enforcement were established between Washington and Havana. Since Trump’s inauguration, only the human trafficking group has met, in February, once, according to Interior Ministry officials here.
“The answer that we received is that they were in the process of establishing an agency to continue the communication,” said an Interior Ministry official who only identified himself as Axel.
Inside and outside the government, Cubans are gaming it out: does more engagement with America buy the regime time by cutting back on poverty and releasing pressure, or does more engagement just speed the end of the regime by opening up more people to opportunities and awareness of how things work outside of the forced cloister that’s been their universe?
The common thread, deep in their guts, is an acknowledgment that even with Trump and with the first non-Castro Cuban president scheduled to be chosen in February to carry the regime into the under-80 generation, change is going to keep coming.
What change means is up for grabs. Fidel and Raul Castro aren’t the only Cubans whose whole concept of the world was shaped by the revolution.
Take Escobar. When I asked her for the Off Message podcast whether she had the freedom to say what she wanted about the government as American journalists do, she said, “I think I can, too.”
She disputed the idea that there’s any difference between being employed by the government and being employed by a private media company. POLITICO’s owner, she argued, “is a private individual and has interests, too,” she said, and wasn’t much convinced by my argument that a private news company’s owner get involved in any of the editorial decisions being made.
I asked her if she’s ever told what to say.
“My experience is positive in the sense that I’ve never said anything that I don’t believe in,” she said.
Others in Cuba point out that Escobar has a unique situation: given her profile, she actually does get a little more freedom to say what she wants. But only so far.
“Self-censorship for you, it might be for me responsibility,” Escobar said, by which she explained she meant “responsibility towards the audience.”
And as for what the government thinks of the journalists it employs: “Getting a source is tremendously hard in Cuba. We say that every day,” Escobar said. “And it’s like, ‘So what?’ No one’s listening to us, and getting sources is practically impossible because they don’t want to face media.”
But Escobar said she knows what the response from the government and the people would be if Trump came himself at this point, trying to repeat Obama’s visit.
“He wouldn’t be welcome,” she said, “because he’s been very disrespectful.”