Cuban Americans warily await Trump’s policy rethink

President Trump will visit Miami as early as Friday and may announce a rollback of Obama’s detente with the island.

Cuba US
Humberto Calzada, 73, a Cuban-American painter in his studio in Miami with his assistant [Edu Bayer/Al Jazeera]

Humberto Calzada takes a tough line on Cuba’s socialist regime. He fled with his family in the first wave of exiles in 1960, fearing what laws the new revolutionaries would impose on the Caribbean island’s well-heeled set. 

He was a teenager then. Now a 73-year-old Cuban-American artist living in Miami, Florida, he still lobbies for the United States to use its economic might to bring about the downfall of the government in Havana. 

“It’s not an ideology; it’s a criminal enterprise that has crushed the spirit of the Cuban people,” Calzada told Al Jazeera. 

“I would cut the sending of money from the US, except a very limited amount between family members, just so they don’t starve. I would cut travel, and cut all the other sources of income.”

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Some of his wishes may come true. US President Donald Trump is set to visit Miami as early as Friday, and announce a rollback of the détente between Washington and Havana that occurred under his predecessor, Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Trump repeatedly bashed Obama’s Cuba policy during the 2016 election campaign and vowed to “terminate” any deals unless Havana makes a better offer. US officials have told Reuters news agency they are close to finishing a review of the rapprochement.

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Plans under consideration include tightening rules on Americans travelling to Cuba, which were loosened under Obama and saw the number of US arrivals rise to 285,000 in 2016, not including the 300,000 Cuban-American visitors who are not counted as tourists.

Trump may also use executive powers to ban US companies from doing business with Cuban enterprises tied to its military – which controls hotels among a sizeable chunk of the communist-ruled island’s economy.

But parts of Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough of December 2014 will likely remain intact. That includes the reopening of embassies and the restoration of relations between Cold War-era foes.

For Trump and other Republicans, sounding tough on Cuba wins votes.

In Florida, a swing state that is home to two-thirds of the two million Cuban Americans, some 54 percent of Cuban Americans backed Trump in the 2016 election – more than the 26 percent of non-Cuban Latinos who voted for the celebrity-turned-politician.

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Trump is likely influenced by Cuban-American politicians from the Sunshine State. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman, may have won Trump’s support for a hard-line Cuba policy by backing the president’s efforts to scrap the Obamacare health insurance system. 

Meanwhile, Florida Senator Marco Rubio sits on the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees, and is seen as a useful figure to cultivate as Trump’s aides are quizzed about colluding with the Kremlin to tip the US election in their favour.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fuelled expectations of a rollback on Obama’s cordiality. The opening had enriched Havana and “achieved very little in terms of changing the behaviour of the regime in Cuba”, he told politicians.

Human Rights Watch agrees, saying Cuba “represses dissent and discourages public criticism” and has done little to stop punishing dissidents with “beatings, public shaming, and the termination of employment”. 

But for William LeoGrande, co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, talk of human rights may just be cover for a Trump administration that works happily with rogues elsewhere.

“The Cuban government’s human rights record leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s not as bad as the records of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Russia. That’s just a rationale or an excuse and not the real reason,” LeoGrande told Al Jazeera.

READ MORE: Paying the price for Cold War animosity in Cuba 

While Obama’s policy was controversial, it came after decades of successive presidents’ failures to dislodge the cigar-smoking revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, or his brother, Raul, who replaced him as president in 2008.

Overall, three-quarters of Americans back the re-establishment of ties with Cuba, says Pew Research Center. Similar numbers of Americans support ending the trade embargo on Cuba, which is applied by Congress, not the president. 

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While Calzada and his friends sip coffee and bemoan Castro in his living room every Tuesday, not all Cuban Americans feel the same way. A 2016 Florida International University poll found 69 percent of those in Florida backed normalised relations. 

This is truer of younger Cuban Americans, 87 percent of whom back the re-establishment of ties.

Meanwhile, the coalition of groups supporting closer US-Cuba ties has grown since the thaw began. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and other carriers connect with Havana nowadays and cruise ships, once a rarity in Havana Bay, dot the shoreline.

By reversing Obama’s policies, Trump would hurt the US economy by $6.6bn and hit some 12,300 jobs, according to Engage Cuba, a lobby group – an odd choice for a hotelier who vows to promote US business.

US telecoms and software firms have interests in Cuba, while the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York, struck a deal with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology to develop a ground-breaking lung cancer vaccine.

“Trump has doubtless received pragmatic advice from the State Department and his cabinet,” James Early, a scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Cuba plays a major role in drug interdiction in the Caribbean. You don’t want to disturb that. US pharmaceutical firms already have patents on two Cuban cancer drugs, despite the blockade. But, as we’ve seen from Trump already, he may take the opposite course to the experts.”

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Republicans may also be coming round to the détente. In a letter to Trump, seven Republican politicians warned that rescinding Obama’s policies would “incentivise Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China”.


For Catherine Walker, a Cuba-based staffer with Witness for Peace, which arranges educational visits for Americans to Cuba, it remains hard to predict whether Trump will once again defy expectations.

“Cubans are experts at managing the punishing US sanctions and have survived the tough presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. But they had very clear policy lines and were easy to predict. That’s not the case with Trump,” Walker told Al Jazeera. 

“Since his inauguration in January, we’ve been sitting, holding our breath, waiting.”

Back in Miami, Calzada is working in his studio on his latest acrylic. He left Cuba aged 16, and visited only once in 2008, but still reminisces about his homeland and paints colonial terraces, stained-glass windows and other Havana-style architecture.

“Lots of people are optimistic about what Trump will do. I’m not. I think it will be purely cosmetic,” he said, adding that the president’s business interests will outweigh his desire for big changes on the island.

“Very few American presidents have cared about Cuba. They just come here, visit the famous Versailles Restaurant on 8th Street and say: ‘Viva Cuba Libre’, and that’s it. They mock us to get our votes.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Source: Al Jazeera