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.