Patrick Oppmann is CNN’s Havana-based correspondent. He was the only reporter for a US television network to report live from Cuba in 2014 when the historic announcement was made that the U.S. government would change its policy toward Cuba and seek to reestablish full diplomatic ties with the island’s communist government and on the night Fidel Castro died.
Havana, Cuba --
Welcome to Cuba’s summer of discontent.
This is the glummest period I have experienced in nearly six years of living here.
There’s the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, a close ally to this island nation. There’s the embarrassing spy caper made public of US diplomats who suffered “acoustic attacks” in Havana (the government has denied involvement). And there’s growing uncertainty over what will happen when Raul Castro steps down as president in early 2018.
But underscoring it all: the 2016 US presidential election.
The anxiety gripping Cuba began as soon as the results in the United States came in. Few people here really took Donald Trump’s candidacy seriously. Used to seeing conspiracies in every corner, several Cuban officials were even convinced that Hillary Clinton had put Trump up to running -- hadn’t she gone to his last wedding? -- and thought I was naive for not seeing the whole thing as rigged to ensure her victory.
As the first anniversary of the election approaches, many Cubans are experiencing whiplash. After being cut off from their neighbor just over 100 miles to the north for more than five decades, the relationship was finally beginning to warm. But that changed in the course of one November night and now the future seems murkier than ever.
Following the 1959 revolution that installed a socialist -- and ultimately communist -- government in Cuba, power changed hands here as infrequently as Fidel Castro shed his trademark fatigues. When Fidel took over, Dwight Eisenhower was the American president. Fidel outlasted nine US administrations and countless CIA-sponsored assassination attempts before finally resigning in 2008 after a mystery stomach illness nearly killed him during George W. Bush’s second term.
Fidel’s younger brother, Raul Castro, succeeded him as head of the government, military and ruling communist-party. While Raul is considered more pragmatic, both Castros prevented the Cuban private sector or foreign investment from taking too deep a root on the island -- only allowing as much capitalism as needed to keep the revolution afloat.
Seeing their government as an immovable object, many Cubans rejoiced on December 17, 2014, when Barack Obama and Raul Castro made a simultaneous announcement that -- following months of secret negotiations -- the two countries would seek to reestablish full diplomatic relations.
Cubans celebrated in the streets and church bells rang throughout Old Havana. It felt like covering the end of a war.
Cubans celebrated in the streets and church bells rang throughout Old Havana. It felt like covering the end of a war. The joy Cubans showed was the most spontaneous moment I had ever witnessed in two decades of traveling to Cuba, where people often carefully guard their true feelings about politics and their government.
Raul Castro made it clear that Cuba would not budge on any domestic policies. Still, change was in the air.
Obama lifted many of the prohibitions on US travel to Cuba and Americans began returning to the island in droves for the first time in a half century, often staying in Cuban homes and dining in privately owned restaurants.
After two years of operating in Cuba, Airbnb said it sent over $40 million to Cubans who rented their homes. The impact could be seen almost everywhere as Cubans -- at least the ones who could afford to -- raced to fix up and rent long dilapidated houses for foreign visitors.
When Obama visited the island in 2016, he shook hands, walked the streets and appeared on a popular local comedy show, charming a populace not accustomed to optimism and engagement from those in power. Cubans began wearing bandanas, t-shirts, Lycra and anything else that had the American flag on it, in defiance of their government’s claims that the flag was a symbol of imperialism.
Regular flight service was restored between Cuba and the US. The Cuban government made an unprecedented concession to the US cruise industry by agreeing to allow Cuban exiles who were born on the island to return by ship. Anemic internet access spread across on the island and social media use ballooned by 368%, more than anywhere else in the world, according to a study by Hootsuite, a platform for managing social media, and We Are Social, an advertising and marketing firm.
Against this backdrop, Trump took the stage in June in Miami’s Little Havana at a theater named for Manuel Artime, a leader of the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart were on hand, reflecting the long-held view among many Cubans and Republicans in Florida that the only way to approach the island is through confrontation aimed at disrupting the one-party political system and improving human rights.
Trump joked with the crowd of anti-Castro exiles about the sweltering temperature in the theater -- the air conditioning was on the fritz -- before getting to the sound bite everyone was waiting for.
“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people -- they only enrich the Cuban regime”
“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people -- they only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump told the crowd, which responded with hearty applause. “Therefore, effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
Sitting at a desk positioned on stage, Trump then signed what he called “a contract” pledging to be tough on Havana, an approach that he said would lift up the Cuban people and small businesses by cutting off the flow of American cash to the country’s elite. The crowd then sang happy birthday to celebrate the President recently turning 71.
Former Obama administration officials have lamented the move.
“Basically for the purpose of having a campaign style event in Miami, he traded away a lot of the goodwill we generated in Latin America and Cuba,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser who led the secret negotiations with Cuba, told me.
Trump’s vow to drive a wedge between Cuba’s small business people and the Cuban government, Rhodes said, “slaps a target on their back.”
In Cuba, the government rebroadcast Trump’s remarks on state television that same night and officials blasted the new tone. Less than a month later, in a speech before the country’s National Assembly, Raul Castro sent a warning shot across the bow of the very private sector Trump said he wants to help.
“They committed criminal acts,” Castro said of some small business owners. “There exists information that the same person has two, three, four, up to five restaurants. Not just in one province but in several. That a person has traveled more than 30 times to different countries. Where do they get the money?”
The chill was felt immediately as the Cuban government announced soon after it was suspending “for the moment” the issuing of new licenses for privately owned restaurants and home rentals. Several successful businesses and cooperatives were raided and closed. While the Cuban government said the crackdown was to help “perfect” the system, several entrepreneurs told me they felt the government was backpedaling on economic reforms.
Havana is full of whispers that more rollbacks are in the works.
“As far as what President Trump said, it’s a shame,” Elian Gonzalez, the boy who was returned the Cuba from the US after a bitter custody battle 17 years ago, told me. “We have been separated by laws, by the blockade, by the sea. We don’t have to keep being separated.”
Like much of his presidency, Trump’s approach to Cuba is something of a study in contradictions. He promised to harness his negotiating skills to strike a better deal with Havana but Cuban and US officials tell me that Trump never attempted to engage with the Cuban government before the speech.
Perhaps more importantly, US policy toward Cuba hasn’t changed -- at least not yet -- despite the bravado Trump brought to Miami. Treasury officials are still rewriting the regulations, a process that may not be completed until the fall, according to US government officials.
Trump is expected to add restrictions to one of the 12 categories of legal travel to the island for Americans and outlaw transactions that benefit the Cuban military. But embassies in Washington and Havana are still open, reflecting the need for an ongoing diplomatic relationship between the two countries. And there won’t be new restrictions on goods that Americans can take out of Cuba, such as the country’s famous cigars.
Still, Trump’s signal is clear: the era of détente is dead.