Cuba At The Dawn of Trumpismo


HAVANA, CUBA — If the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, Donald Trump’s orange mug will one day be caricatured on “The Corner of the Cretins” that visitors must pass to exit Cuba’s Museo de la Revolución.

The last three Republican U.S. presidents already stand there next to Fulgencio Batista, the U.S. government- and mafia-backed dictator whom Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew on New Years Day in 1959. A haughty grotesque, Batista struts in his baggy military uniform next to Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat, George H. W. Bush in a Roman emperor’s tunic, and his son W. sporting a helmet with a swastika in the center. Walking past this jarring display a week before Trump’s inauguration, it had been difficult not to wonder whether the Cuban government had been premature in its Nazi imagery, given the 45th President’s refugee ban and his erasure of Jews from a statement remembering the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Trump has been itching to restart the younger Bush’s torture camps in Guantánamo Bay, a perpetual thorn in Cuba’s national pride since the United States seized the territory during the Spanish-American War. The United States has paid $4,085 a year under the Platt Amendment to lease the military base on Cuba’s southeastern coast, but the Castros refused to cash the checks on all but one occasion since the revolution.

Reversing President Obama’s efforts to close the prisons there, Trump vowed to load them back up with captives. “We are in the midst of a full review of all US policies towards Cuba,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Feb. 3.

Despite all this, the Cubans interviewed for this article appeared preternaturally calm about the new U.S. president at the dawn of Trumpismo.

For some, like 39-year-old artist Javier Cabrera Jiménez, Trump’s isolationism could spell a more hands-off approach to Cuba.

“I do not know exactly what Donald Trump will do, but it seems to me that Donald Trump creates a politics that is more for inside the United States,” Jiménez said. “He is not going to get much into foreign policy, it appears to me.”

Whereas Obama and Hillary Clinton had been more likely to pursue an interventionist foreign policy toward the Ukraine and the Islamic State group, Jiménez said: “Donald Trump is a protectionist.”

When we spoke, Jiménez had been helping exhibit the work of Cuba’s acclaimed political cartoonist Aristades “Ares” Hernandez at the Galería Ojo de Ciclón (“Eye of the Cyclone Gallery”), at a bohemian intersection of the cobblestone streets in Old Havana. The winner of the United Nation’s Ranan Lurie Political Cartoon Competition, Ares memorialized Obama’s visit to Havana last year with a sendup of Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster.

In an email interview, Ares told the Voice that more than a half-century of economic blockade and aggressive U.S. foreign policy has steeled Cubans against the uncertainties of a Trump presidency.

“Regarding Trump, to me the worst thing is that he is an unpredictable man, so we do not know what will happen with him,” Ares said.

Perhaps keeping an eye on his business interests, Trump began the primary season declaring he had no problem with Obama’s path of normalization with Cuba, only to flip-flop later and pander to Miami’s hardline expatriate community. In July 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Trump sent his associates to explore opportunities the previous year in Varadero, a resort city on the northern coast home to Cuba’s only 18-hole golf course.

Ares adopted a wait-and-see approach for sorting out Trump’s mixed signals.

“Yesterday, my Cuban friend told me a joke,” Ares said. “Trump is so entertained right now with the Mexicans and the Muslims that he doesn’t have time to occupy himself with Cuba.”

Still, Ares hopes to see more cordial relations develop between the two nations.

“After all, we are neighbors, and my country has neither attacked nor seeks to change anything in your country,” he said.

Near my casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast, my companion, an art historian, stopped to admire the colorful tiles — likely from the 19th century or earlier — decorating the facade of building on the street. That these ornate ceramics still adorn the vibrantly painted buildings across the Havana skyline is one of the reasons the city became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This house belonged to a plumber, Julio Acevedo Suánez, who struck up a conversation with us about Cuban architecture before inviting us inside for coffee.

Asked if he was afraid that Trump would harm U.S.-Cuban relations, Suánez took exception to the phrasing of the question: “The Cuban people are very valiant,” he said.

To illustrate why Cubans do not scare easily, Suánez launched into a history lesson, describing how Castro began the revolution with 82 rebels aboard yacht designed for only 12 men.

That vessel, the Granma, is enshrined behind plexiglass at the Museo de la Revolución.

“The protagonist of the Revolution was the people,” Suánez said, passionately recounting the history. “Yes, Fidel was a guide.”

Roberto Plá Riva, an architect who heard about the rumors of Trump’s interest in Cuban hotels, emphasized that Cuba is fertile ground for investment and has immense potential for its tourism industry.

“The hospitality industry has many positive aspects for the country, but also has other edges, not very healthy, which could harm the population,” he told me later in an email. “The increase in social inequalities, the prostitution, the marginalization of the residential and local population, are some of them.”

Cuba’s currency — with tourists mostly using convertibles worth roughly a dollar, and Cubans spending pesos approximately 4 cents — reflects that two-tiered system. More than three years have passed since President Raul Castro announced plans to unify the country’s money, and it is not uncommon to find university professors or other professionals catering to tourists to make ends meet.

Plá Riva pointed to Barcelona — where several thousands of locals spilled into the streets against the tourist industry last year — as an example of how a city rich in culture can draw travelers around the world, while neglecting the needs of their people.

“If the government fails to regulate and understand these changes well, in the long run, it can be harmful to the population, well beyond the benefits obtained,” he said.

When speaking about Trump, Cubans did not share the U.S. obsession with his Twitter feed, largely because Wi-Fi access is still relatively rare. Connecting requires waiting on a long line to pay $2 — a substantial fee for many Cubans — for one hour of access, usually available inside a public park or near a hotel.

“Perhaps it may seem unusual to you, but in Cuba, it still does not form part of our life to comment on Twitter, Facebook, or other sites,” Plá Riva wrote. “The average Cuban speaks of politics on the street, with their friends and neighbors, not on the internet.”

On the other hand, young software entrepreneur Adriana Sigüenza did catch wind of Trump’s misogynist social-media rants.

“It makes me angry to read his tweets and his machismo-laced interviews,” she said in an email. “I think it is a regression, and I don’t believe he can really make America Great Again if he doesn’t empower women.”

At age 29, Sigüenza is already a Cuban success story on an international scale.

Three years ago, the CEO co-founded Syncware, which provides consultation and software to Cuban businesses and acts as a bridge to foreign investors. She had been among the group of entrepreneurs Obama met with in Havana to discuss future commercial relations between the two countries. Sigüenza saw Obama again a few months later at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016 in Silicon Valley.

The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions protested in the US and across 80 other countries against Trump’s agenda at the Women’s March. Many of the Washington demonstrators marched to fend of threats to women’s reproductive rights in the United States, but the organizers did not report any demonstrations in Cuba, where abortion is free and legal for all.

Sigüenza did not notice any demonstrations there either.

“My experience as a woman in Cuba and in the business and family environment makes me feel safe as a woman since gender equality in Cuba has existed since 1959, and has been maintained,” she said. “I know many businesswomen in the private sector, and all are very successful, that in my opinion, is due to the education and culture that we have in Cuba for women’s empowerment.”