I’ll leave aside – for now – his misogyny, racial prejudice, egotism, and contempt for democracy and the rule of law. I will even cast my eye away from Michael Gove’s fawning interview in the Times at the beginning of last week (one of the lousiest bits of journalism I’ve ever read), and the horrific inauguration speech at its end. Instead I’ll look at a place just 90 miles off the American coast, which has been overlooked amid the turmoil of Donald Trump’s election and where – believe it or not – one part of Obama’s legacy may be burnished, not dismantled.
Trump has promised to cancel every “executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama”. On healthcare, climate change, and relations with Russia the question is not whether Trump will shift away from Obama’s positions, but how far and how fast.
Cuba is one of the few policy areas where Trump could go either way. Donald Trump’s ghoulish tweet announcing “Fidel Castro is dead!” just a few hours after the Cuba leader had died last November might indicate that his attitude to Cuba will be like his attitude to just about everything else: insensitive, narcissistic and goading. But in fact, the ongoing thaw in US-Cuba relations is one Obama initiative that Trump may support.
More than fifty years after the missile crisis, the US-Cuba thaw began in late 2014, when Obama eased travel and business restrictions and announced that the US embassy in Havana would reopen. In 2015 Cuba was removed from the US’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (a decision that the Republican congress did nothing to reverse), and Obama used his executive powers to allow several US companies to operate in Cuba: six telecoms, four cruise lines, one hotel chain, eight airlines and two small banks. In March 2016 Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba since 1928, and in November the first New York-Havana flight since the 1960s took off, just three days after Fidel Castro’s death – one of the best serendipities of 21st-century history thus far.
In mid-December Google signed a deal with the Cuban government to speed up internet access. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, the first legal Cuban export to the US for more than 50 years arrived: 40 tons of charcoal produced in Cuban cooperative farms. And only last week Obama announced an end to the “wet foot dry foot” policy – whereby most Cubans who turn up on American soil, or at any American embassy abroad, are given American citizenship within a year, no questions asked. The policy has caused a brain drain of tens of thousands of doctors and other professionals fleeing Cuba, and its end will be welcomed in Havana.
Curiously, this final measure could be seen as Trumpish conservatism – strengthening US borders and closing an immigration loophole – just as much as a concession to Cuba (encouraging educated Cubans to stay in Cuba, thereby improving public services and civil society, as the Los Angeles Times has rightly pointed out). Just as Trump promises to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, reopening the door to any Cubans who want to come to the US would send an odd signal.
And even if he does decide to halt, or reverse, the modest steps taken by the Obama administration to make trade and travel between the US and Cuba easier, this could be more complex than expected. Rather than a single deal the Obama administration struck several agreements with Cuba, ranging from direct mail to managing oil spills, which could take years to unpick. Indeed, Cuba was not mentioned in Trump’s inauguration speech, or in the slew of executive orders he issued on January 23rd. It seems the only reference made to Cuba since the Trump presidency began is the unsurprising pledge to keep Guantanamo Bay open.
In fact Trump’s ideological flexibility, respect for other egotistical strong-man leaders such as Putin and Raul Castro, and economic nationalism could well prompt him to continue, or even accelerate, the thaw. This may be one litmus test that the Trump presidency passes.
Protectionism can only go so far: if Trump is to generate millions of new American manufacturing jobs as promised – just as he plans trade tariffs on Mexico and other trading partners, which they will only respond to in kind – the US badly needs new export markets. Where better than a country with a population of 11 million, just an hour’s flight from the US and with lots of unmet demand for infrastructure, technology, cars and consumer goods?
Over the last 20 years – and even since his candidacy began – Trump has repeatedly changed his tune about Cuba, giving him a lot of wriggle room now his Presidency has begun. Newsweek has reminded us that in the 90s Trump spent $68,000 to send consultants to Cuba despite the embargo, even though Trump then wrote in a 1999 editorial in The Miami Herald to say he had changed his mind and would not invest in Cuba. “My investment in Cuba would directly subsidise the oppression of the Cuban people,” he said at the time. “I’d rather lose those millions than lose my self-respect.”
But the BBC has recently reminded us that early on in his Presidential campaign, Trump said he was “fine” with the Obama administration’s policy of rapprochement (“Fifty years is enough time, folks”). Later on he promised Cuban-American opponents of the thaw in Miami’s Little Havana that he would roll back on Mr Obama’s detente, keep the US economic embargo firmly in place, and even close the recently reopened US embassy in Havana.
Since the election, this rhetoric has not been repeated.Why? Firstly, many observers think that Trump’s mercantile instincts mean that, like Nixon in China, he may be even friendlier to Cuba than his Democratic predecessor. “Rescinding enhanced travel that Obama has introduced would be the most tragic thing Trump might do, but I don’t think he will,” Robert L. Muse, a lawyer who specialises in US-Cuba trade law, has told the New York Times. “He has invested a lifetime in travel, resorts and hotel accommodations, and it’s a global enterprise. It seems counter-intuitive.”
Secondly, for once a Republican president’s victory has not been clinched by Latinos (many of them Cuban) turning out for the GOP in Florida: although Trump carried Florida he only defeated Hilary Clinton because he won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin as well. There’s evidence that the influence of Miami’s ageing Cuban exiles, who came over in the 50s and 60s and who are all opposed to any kind of rapprochement with the Castro regime, is waning. As they die out a younger generation of Cuban-Americans is thinking more pragmatically of the opportunities of restoring family and business ties.
I spent ten days in Cuba with my partner and daughter in February 2015, just after the thaw started, to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. We loved Havana. A few blocks from its pristine historic core, its restoration paid for by Unesco, can be found huge potholes like asteroid craters, buildings that have rotted from within, stray dogs and piles of rubble. Yet despite the hazardous pavements, ropey street lighting and crumbling façades, nowhere did we ever feel unsafe.
There’s much we can learn from Cuban society. Our favourite day was our trip to a book fair at the Fortaleza de San Carlos – a Spanish fort just across the river from Havana. We were the only Gringoes in sight, and it was remarkable to see ordinary Cubans queuing up to buy school textbooks with their meagre disposable income – something unthinkable in Britain. Remarkable too was the complete lack of commercial advertising, and the almost complete absence of obesity and anorexia in Cuba: Cuban women are comfortable in their own skin, and complement each other on their individual beauty, not how closely they confirm to an idealised, size-zero yardstick.
Everywhere we got a warm welcome, and for the independent travellers who flock to Cuba the decay is part of the charm. At the end of the holiday we went to a beach resort a few miles east of Havana, mostly frequented by Canadian tourists. Its free bar, carefree disco and simple chalet accommodation was reminiscent of the Costa Del Sol before the high-rises arrived in the 1960s (even if the sea itself was out of bounds because of blue jellyfish).
At Havana university – built, Acropolis like, on top of a hill by the Americans in 1923 and indistinguishable from a US campus of that time – we were accosted by a friendly middle-aged couple claiming to be Phys Ed instructors. They showed us around and then asked for alms, and we were happy to oblige. There’s certainly no lack of entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba, but it often has to be concealed: the owner of the wonderful Havana guest house we stayed at keeps a low profile to avoid being reported to tax authorities for aggressive investigation. The failures of a state-run economy were easy to spot. When we tried to visit the famous Coppelia ice cream parlour we were ushered to a smaller, empty parlour on the periphery of the bustling park, reserved for Gringos. A hand-drawn notice outside a nearby cinema said it was screening Gone Girl, a recent Hollywood release starring “Rosa Mund Pike”: oddly, the economic embargo still extended to film posters but not the celluloid itself.
In all the impressive museums and galleries we visited there were dozens of employees stood twiddling their thumbs – jobs may be guaranteed, but there’s no budgetary incentive to reduce overstaffing and no incentive to offer staff rewarding work, as there are no other institutions workers could shift their labour to.
More sinisterly, I discovered Cuba is the only place on earth where taxi drivers are reluctant to talk about politics. When I asked Carlos, who drove us from Havana to the beach resort for $10, whether he thought Cuba would change following the thawing of its cold war with the US he replied only Sí, puede cambiar (Yes, it may change) and changed the subject. I didn’t probe further.
Havana’s Estación Central de Ferrocarriles: a monument to faded glamour which few tourists visit
Many of the friends with us during our week in Havana are gay; they encountered no hostility and one even tried uneventfully to go cruising on a beach. It’s common for liberal British travellers like me to return from Cuban holidays gushing over the refreshing lack of consumerism, the enforced digital detox (there’s little or not mobile coverage in Cuba so you’re not glued to your screen), and the country’s excellent health and education outcomes. But we forget that Cuba is first and foremost home to 11 million Cubans, not a cheap holiday destination, and that the Cuba we inhabited for a week or so is about as similar to ordinary life for the Cubans as chalk is to cheese. Ordinary Cubans have no choice but to live with the country’s crumbling infrastructure, lack of economic opportunity and state repression all the time. A two-week digital detox for western tourists is wonderful; not having free access to the Internet 365 days of the year is something very different.
Like Havana, Cuba’s beach resorts evoke a distant memory: the Costa Del Sol before the high-rises arrived
There’s something unbearably smug about tourists who say they fear the arrival of American investment and consumerism will “ruin” Cuba, but who can’t live without consumerism back home. It’s perfectly possible for Latino cities to be modern and commercialised without being spoilt: think of Barcelona or Lisbon. And I’ve long been irritated by the short-sighted Cuba Sí and Cuba Solidarity campaigns, heavily backed by the RMT and other unions, including the National Union of Journalists, who obsess over the US economic embargo but overlook the Castro regime’s own repressions of media critics (bizarrely, the NUJ says “we work with organisation such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to highlight the abuse of basic human rights wherever they occur.”)
The Cuban state still has a monopoly on all media outlets: television, radio, the press and internet service providers. Article 53 of the Constitution recognises freedom of the press but expressly prohibits private ownership of the mass media. Amnesty International – hardly a neo-con organisation – reports: “Peaceful demonstrators and human rights activists are routinely detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement… Activists are often detained to stop them from attending public demonstrations or private meetings. Independent journalists reporting on these detentions are themselves harassed by the authorities or put behind bars… Often, the relatives of those detained are never informed of their loved ones’ whereabouts.”
While Cuba may be a good holiday destination for gay tourists nowadays the Castro regime has an appalling record on human rights: until recently gay people were routinely banned from joining the Communist party, fired from their jobs and even locked up in labour camps.
Trump’s not known for his advocacy of gay rights of course, and with no openly gay Republicans in the new congress, don’t expect conditions on human rights to be attached to any further thaw. Trump will only thaw relations with Cuba with the heat of money, not the flame of liberty.
There are few things to look forward to during a Trump presidency, but whatever his motives a continued rapprochement with Cuba may be one of them. Let’s hope Trump’s successor will ensure that the ongoing thaw puts as much emphasis on human rights as on money once ‘the Donald’ is gone. And maybe the next time I meet that Cuban taxi driver he’ll be more willing to let me know what he thinks.