It has been almost three years since Barack Obama declared détente with Cuba, initiating, with Cuban President Raúl Castro, a normalization of relations between the two countries. But since his election last fall, Donald Trump has attempted to revert to an obsolete and aggressive Cold War policy by strengthening the economic embargo and promoting regime change. Trump’s ill-conceived measures and bombast cannot undo all of the advances in US-Cuba relations that have been made in the past few years. But they have added to the insecurity and daily struggles of Cubans in a time of economic difficulty and the resurgence of the right in the region. Those difficulties are compounded as the Cuban government addresses the lingering effects of Hurricane Irma.
Following on his earlier threats to cancel the agreements between Cuba and the United States under Obama, last week President Trump announced a set of new regulations that will prohibit people-to-people travel, or individual visits by US citizens not with a tour group. The regulations will also prohibit transactions with certain hotels and tour agencies that benefit Cuba’s military and intelligence sector, and will expand the list of Cubans who cannot receive funds from, or travel to, the United States. The new regulations intensify a regime-change approach that seeks to destabilize the Cuban government rather than build links. They encourage US travelers to patronize private businesses and to support dissident activities, while banning them from spending money on government hotels and resorts. Such an approach creates hardships for all Cubans—those who work in government-owned enterprises and those who supply them, and even those private businesses and private-home rentals that will be affected by a decline in tourism resulting from the prohibition on individual travel.
Ordinary Cubans foresee dark times ahead. Those who have built up vibrant businesses or have been able to support their families through work in tourist industries are concerned about the downturn in tourism and their access to the coveted Convertible Peso (CUC). Others, mostly concentrated in the poorer barrios of the cities and rural areas, as well as the older population cut off from the tourist economy, still receive their income in the lower-valued Cuban peso and expect their own standard of living to decline further.
Shortages and blackouts are a part of everyday experience in Cuba, but in recent times it seems that everyone is trying to resolver, or resolve, a personal situation or crisis. One friend needs Benadryl for her son’s allergies, but it is no longer available at local pharmacies for one peso (3 cents) a packet, so she is forced to buy it on the black market, where a packet costs 10 pesos (37 cents). Another suffers inflammation in her knees and has to wait until friends visiting from abroad can bring her supplies of Chondritin. Cubans go from store to store looking for basic necessities like toilet paper. If they are lucky, someone may swipe packets of butter from a hotel so they can have it with their morning toast; butter is a delicacy rarely found in the local supermarkets. Since Hurricane Irma struck Cuba’s northern coast in early September, private construction has suffered delays and setbacks, as many building supplies have been diverted to helping victims of the hurricane and reconstruction efforts. The recent US measures will only add to these difficulties.
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For those Cubans who must travel to the United States, either for work or to visit family, securing a visa has become a real challenge. Six weeks ago, the US Embassy in Havana reduced personnel by 60 percent and stopped issuing visas to Cubans. The personnel were removed after the Trump administration alleged that sonic attacks had been carried out against members of the embassy. Soon after, the US State Department issued a travel advisory, warning about the possibility of such attacks in tourist hotels. Many see these measures as invented justifications designed to scale back diplomatic services and scare away tourists. (Twenty-two US personnel were afflicted with mysterious ailments, such as hearing loss and dizziness, but investigations by both US and Cuban bodies have found no cause, and US neurologists believe the illnesses are a form of mass hysteria rather than the result of sonic attacks.) In order to procure a visa, Cubans must now travel to a third country and apply for one there—an expense that most cannot afford. The rap group Obsession, for example, which had been planning a US tour, had to go to Colombia to apply for visas.
But despite all of these difficulties, there is still vibrancy in the cities and rural towns of the island. Cubans make do with what they have. Up and down the major thoroughfares of Havana, like Calle Veintitres or Infanta, Cubans execute an intricate repertoire of gestures to flag down the shared taxis that charge 10 pesos per sector. A thumb pointing in a fixed direction indicates to the driver where the passenger wishes to go. Holding up three fingers to an empty cab indicates that the person wants a private ride to a nearby location and is willing to pay 3 CUC ($3.50) for the ride.
As Cubans queue up in long lines for the ubiquitous Internet cards that provide up to five hours of Web access in local hotspots for 5 CUC ($5.80), they are remarkably patient and gracious toward one another. As in all places where Cubans wait for services and transport, an arriving person will ask who is el ultimo (the last), and then they will wait their turn after that person. If someone needs to push to the head of the line because of some emergency, there is no protest from the others in line, who just assume she must have a good reason to do so.
The cultural life of Havana is as upbeat as ever. At a recent opening displaying the work of three black artists in the beautifully renovated space in Old Havana known as Factoria Habana, enraptured crowds populated the three floors of the gallery and poured out into the surrounding streets. In a week of cultural activities organized by Cartelera Cultural Cubana, there were free and inexpensive concerts by well-known Cuban artists such as the trovador Gerardo Alfonso and the black rock group Síntesis, as well as Colombian and Russian film screenings. Jazz musician Roberto Fonseca inaugurated a new cultural space known as Bule-bar 66. There is no shortage of enriching cultural experiences to distract from or make poetry out of the hardships.
All of this amounts to a culture of resistance against the isolation that Trump wants to impose on Cuba. Rather than turning against their own government, most Cubans are angry at Trump, whom they see as taking them back to a failed and anachronistic Cold War politics. Cuba has never been isolated from the world, or even from the United States—something Trump’s policies fail to comprehend. And now more than ever, people-to-people exchanges, travel, and contact will help Cuba to survive this period, as we create global solidarities to resist Trump’s attacks.