Cubans worry Trump could dash island's economic hopes

Cubans are anxious about what the new U.S. administration might have in store for their country.

Incoming U.S. administration has signaled it may uphold trade embargo

Cuban businessman Raudel Gutierrez Rodriguez stands by a photo of revolutionary leader Che Guevara at the chess club he manages in the northern city of Matanzas. (Anwar Ali/CBC)

As a major political shift takes place in the United States, there's also a sea change in Cuba, its troubled neighbour across the Florida Strait.

Only days before U.S. President Barack Obama steps aside to allow Donald Trump to assume his mandate, citizens in central Cuban cities such as Santa Clara, Matanzas and Cárdenas — where foreign currency flows in from nearby resorts — are anxious about what the new U.S. administration might have in store for their country.

Cubans are generally reluctant to discuss politics and appear more preoccupied with how the incoming U.S. president will affect them financially.

Sentiments range from cynicism that Trump will have any bearing at all on Cuba to worry that he'll undo Obama's symbolic moves in the last few years to normalize relations, which has given some Cubans a measure of economic hope.

"Bad, bad, bad. [Trump] has a lot of ideas that are bad," says Alberto Rodriguez, a 35-year-old bus driver and Cárdenas resident.

"He wants to destroy [what Obama has done]."

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Easing the embargo

Back in 1960, U.S. president John F. Kennedy established a trade embargo against Cuba as retaliation for the seizure of U.S. property during the Cuban revolution and for the country's declared allegiance to the Soviet Union.

During the latter part of his tenure, U.S. President Barack Obama sought ways to normalize relations with Cuba, led by President Raul Castro, right. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The embargo has outlasted nine U.S. presidents. But towards the end of his tenure, Barack Obama loosened trade restrictions in a few industries — especially Cuba's most famous exports, rum and cigars, for personal use, and allowing Cuban pharmaceutical companies to seek regulatory approval to tap the U.S. market.

U.S. commercial airlines now fly to Cuba but Americans still cannot enter the country as tourists. (They are permitted to travel in special cases, such as religious visits.)

The initiatives following the détente on Dec. 17, 2014, sparked hope amongst Cubans that living conditions will improve.

But the trade embargo — or bloqueo, as it's known here — is still relatively intact. And it continues to leave bruises on Cubans' daily lives.

New products such as electronics and clothing are in many cases prohibitively expensive in government-run stores. It's far cheaper for a Cuban to get it through a travelling family member or a "mule" whose business it is to sell foreign merchandise.

According to the Brookings Institute, the average Cuban makes the equivalent of $30 US each month. With three-quarters of the population dependent on government wages, those who live outside tourist zones  — in particular the poorer Oriente region — have limited opportunities to earn more.

The outlook on Trump

The Cuban economy is still maturing since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late '80s and Russia abdicated its role as the island's benefactor. The early 1990s are known as "the Special Period" in Cuban lore, a reference to a dark time when the country's store shelves were bare.

Some Cubans worry that Donald Trump will undo Obama’s symbolic moves in the last few years to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Today, Cuba's GDP is around $80 billion US, and it's not clear how much trade would result if the U.S. embargo was further dismantled.

Donald Trump has expressed an interest in hearing from Cubans, but he's also threatened to pull back on some of Obama's historic gestures of diplomacy unless Cuba makes certain concessions — including allowing freedom of speech and releasing political prisoners.

Trump's choice as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has stated that Cuba would be on the list of items under review once the new president takes office, and that he'd advise his new boss to veto any motion to dismantle the embargo.

This doesn't surprise some Cubans.

"[Trump] isn't going to remove [the embargo]. Not him or any other president," said a woman in Cárdenas who did not want to be identified.

Among Cubans, there seem to be conflicting allegiances between those loyal to the decades-long socialist revolution orchestrated by Fidel Castro and those who lean closer to capitalist ideas.

Raudel Gutierrez Rodriguez, right, plays chess at the club he manages in the Cuban city of Matanzas. (Anwar Ali/CBC)

Raudel Gutierrez Rodriguez embodies both impulses. Despite being a harsh critic of U.S. politics, the 51-year-old, who fixes watches at his home, is a Trump supporter.

Gutierrez is also a self-proclaimed "revolutionary" whose given name is a combination of the two Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel.

With a touch of irony, Gutierrez says he admires the incoming U.S. president for his past "triumphs" as a businessman.

"I think he's going to take positive steps with respect to Cuba," said Gutierrez at a chess club that he runs in Matanzas. "I believe more in him than any other person."

Frustrations with regime

Expressing political views that aren't in line with the revolutionary ideals set out by the Castros can lead to persecution, so very few Cubans are willing to risk going on record to share their opinion.

In private, however, a few do dare to criticize a regime they feel has failed them.

Matanzas resident Bárbaro smashes beverage cans to sell to a local business, which will export them for recycling. (Anwar Ali/CBC)

Some believe the country's misfortunes have nothing to do with the U.S. Instead, they cast blame on Cuban leaders' handling of the economy, which President Raul Castro revealed had dipped into a recession last year.

The pessimism is especially noticeable amongst young people, who are anxious to connect to a world that's buzzing ahead. 

"Nothing is going to change," said Juan, an engineering graduate in Santa Clara who works as a bartender in one of Cuba's most avant-garde cultural hubs, El Mejunje.


Anwar is a print and broadcast journalist based in Toronto. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Walrus Magazine, Montreal Gazette and Alberta Venture.