What a difference a year makes! I can still remember, back in February 2016, watching Raul Castro announce on Cuban television that Barack Obama would be visiting Havana a few weeks later. As I stepped outside my house in Old Havana, I found my neighbours dancing in delight to the loud music coming out of an old dodgy stereo wired to an even dodgier speaker. Change, it seemed, had finally arrived after decades and decades of attrition and suffering.
Anywhere I went afterwards, it was the same. Sport fans gathered in Havana’s Central Park were even louder than they usually are, discussing a new world of possibilities that would start with the arrival of the US president and the Tampa Bay Rays, a Major League baseball team, scheduled to play a ballgame against the Cuban national team that same week. Everybody was thrilled. When I made it back to Europe a few days later, most of the people I talked to were equally excited with the winds of change. Cuba was about to have a Berlin Wall moment, or so it seemed.
Eventually, Obama came and went, the baseball game was a success, and within weeks the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana became as congested as any airport can be, largely thanks to the several new flights arriving from the United States on a daily basis. Havana and the rest of the island saw an almost immediate economic boom, chiefly fuelled by American tourists arriving in droves, to bathe in the sun of Cuba’s Caribbean beaches and to degust mojitos and daiquiris in their places of birth. All appeared to be rosy. Then, Trump happened.
A new era
From the start, Donald Trump was the most unlikely of presidential candidates, and the most unlikely of presidents. The moment he was elected, a dark cloud of doubts and “what nows” descended upon the new and frail Cuban-American relationship. Not only did he know little about Latin America, but it was soon apparent that his presidential decision-making process would be dictated by a mixed assortment of anti-everything liberal, “alt-right” officers, who were bent on destroying any and all of Obama’s policies, from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to the US commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
Cuba was not be an exception, even though Trump’s administration has done little to seek the opinion of any experts on the island’s history and politics. As Professor William LeoGrande from the American University in Washington, DC, noted to me in a personal communication last week, President Trump has nominated only five State Department officials so far, none of whom deal with Latin America. Taking advice instead from Cuban-American hardliners like Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Trump’s Cuban policy finally unravelled last Friday during a speech at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami.
In other words, by resorting to the same kind of populism Fidel Castro and his brother have used in Cuba for decades, Trump gave us more of the same futile policies that have been applied to Cuba by successive US administrations.
Surrounded by Cuban exiles and by some leaders of the opposition to the Cuban government, Trump showered them with the sort of empty rhetoric that only populists are capable of spounting. Interestingly enough, according to Trump, most of his new measures were nothing but a reaction against long-standing Cuban government human rights violations. This immediately raised eyebrows everywhere, considering that Trump himself has had no problem in seeking good relations with the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.
In other words, by resorting to the same kind of populism Fidel Castro and his brother have used in Cuba for decades, Trump gave us more of the same futile policies that have been applied to Cuba by successive US administrations. Every one of the objectives they had in mind when the embargo was declared in the early 1960s, failed over the years. Human rights in the island deteriorated, Castro – who was pushed into the open arms of the Soviet Union – outlived several aggressive and clueless administrations, and as Cuba grew poorer, Castro became a hero for the rest of the world, especially for the developing world.
Only when the collapse of the Eastern bloc once again forced the Cuban government into someone else’s arms, things began to change. The more Cuba integrated with its hemispheric neighbours, the more things improved. The infamous and expensive exit permit – which was, in fact, an exit visa for Cubans to be able to travel – was eliminated. Permissions to live abroad became easier to get, thus stopping the unremitting break up of family units that had been the rule since 1959. Small entrepreneurship was finally encouraged, and restaurants, guesthouses, and private taxis were for the first time authorised. Obama’s visit last year was not just a historical landmark, but it could have been the beginning of an era of prosperity and political change that now will be lost for good.
It was this opening of Cuba to the world, the one Pope John Paul II asked from Fidel Castro in a mass at the Revolution Square in January 1998, that set Cuba on a path of change and improvement. Granted, the human rights record of the Cuban government showed little signs of improvement, and a twisted sort of state capitalism was imposed. To the frustration of Cuban and Cuban-Americans, democracy failed to return to the island.
Even these critical, recurrent failures were starting to be openly discussed after Obama’s rapprochement policy brought back diplomatic relations, paving the way for more and more exchanges of all kinds between the two former foes. But that world of possibilities is no more. Now, all those improvements are virtually lost for good, thanks to the fantasies of an ideologically driven administration ruled by white supremacist sympathisers and ultra-conservative, incompetent and ignorant officials.
It’s difficult to predict what sort of impact these new measures are likely to have upon the future of Cuba. Based on decades of experience, we can be almost certain that they will not do much damage to those who decide the destinies of the more than 11 million men, women and children who inhabit the island.
Trump repeated ad infinitum that he had come to Miami to keep his promises. Every time he did, he got the ovation he was after. Was this just another hollow populist exercise from a man in need of constant attention and adulation? Or was perhaps just a quid-pro-quo transaction with Rubio, Diaz-Balart and their hardcore, anti-communist following? The cynic in me thinks that it could also be his way of letting his friend Putin know that Cuba can now be Russian again. At the moment, it is hard to say.
One thing is almost certain, though. If these measures end up affecting someone, that someone is not going to be Raul Castro or any of his cronies; that someone is not going to be either the ever-stronger Cuban army, now in control of vast swaths of the Cuban economy. As it happened before, and it will likely happen again, the only losers in this phoney show will be ordinary Cubans.
Manuel Barcia is a professor of Latin American history at the University of Leeds.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.