By Benjamin Waddell*
HAVANA TIMES – In 2015 President Barack Obama committed to opening up relations with Cuba. His administration reduced economic sanctions, facilitated tourism to the island, and made it easier for Cuban-Americans to send money home to loved ones.
Upon taking office in 2017, Donald Trump quickly reversed Obama’s historic détente with the Cuban government. First, he tightened the economic vice grip on Cuba by restoring the main tenets of the economic blockade that President Kennedy initiated in 1962. Then, he drastically restricted the flow of US travel to the island while clamping down on the legal flow of remittances. Finally, just prior to leaving office, Trump added Cuba back to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s government aimed to deny “the Castro regime the resources it uses to oppress its people at home, and to counter its malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.”
Despite these efforts, empirical research reveals that cutting off relations with Cuba may actually strengthen local support for the Cuban government. My own time on the island confirms this notion.
An Internal Blockade
Between 2015 and 2017 I traveled to Cuba 5 times. During my stays, I talked with countless locals about the impact of US sanctions. Many spoke about the negative consequences that the economic blockade had on the country’s economy. However, to my surprise, the men and women I met also explained how economic and political sanctions helped the communist party.
A middle-aged history professor turned tour guide named Javier was the first to clue me in to what appeared to be a common-held belief in Cuba. Javier quit his job as a history teacher shortly after his daughter was born, because he simply couldn’t make ends meet on his $35 a month salary. He begrudgingly reinvented himself as a tour guide, which allows him to pull in an average of $250 a month. He disliked his work, but when it came to issues of politics and history, Javier spoke with conviction.
“If the US really wanted to end the Communist Party, they could,” Javier told me. “All they’d have to do is open the economy. The whole thing would collapse because what we have here is an internal blockade. Fidel survived all those years because the US kept trying to undermine him. Without an outside aggressor, people would have questioned Fidel.”
Covering up government shortcomings
To emphasize his point, Javier placed his index finger on his temple and said, “An internal blockade, brother. That’s our biggest barrier. Our leaders blame everything that goes wrong like poor transportation, lack of medicine, and low paying jobs on the US. And they’re not entirely wrong, but it’s an excuse too. They cover up their own shortcomings with the blockade. Without the economic sanctions, things are going change. But if they bring back the sanctions, we’ll go right back to where we were.”
Javier and I were staying at an agricultural cooperative just outside Güira de Melena, which was once the center of Cuba’s agricultural revolution. But since 1990, when the USSR collapsed, the area’s production quickly dwindled as Soviet markets disappeared, and many young, able-bodied men and women migrated to the US.
That afternoon, as Javier and I walked toward town, I stared out at the largely uncultivated fields, where dozens of Soviet-era tractors sat in heaps of rust. A few minutes later, near the main store, we met a woman named Mercedes, who told me, “Every family in town has someone who has left for the US. And the money they send home is what we survive on.”
New homes thanks to remittances
As we walked back toward the cooperative, Javier pointed out new two-story homes peppered throughout the outlying neighborhoods.
“Homes like these are all financed by remittances,” Javier explained. “But to keep your property, you have to be on good terms with the party.”
Javier talked in detail about the fragile relationship between private enterprise, and the communist party. Still, as he noted, eventually private business owners would be more powerful than the government.
“But that day will only come if the US continues to roll back sanctions,” he said.
Javier’s voice drowned in and out as he competed with a pair of Russian-model fighter jets from a nearby air force base that were cutting through the warm evening air overhead. We walked back in silence, accompanied by the sound of unharvested sugar cane rustling in the wind.
Later that week, I sat with Javier, and my students, beneath a small outcrop with a lone television to watch the government announce the United States’ decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Javier cried as the broadcaster announced the decision.
“This will change everything,” Javier said. “Now the government won’t have any more excuses. They will have to give way to change.”
And for a fleeting moment, Javier’s emotional prophecy appeared to be true. Over the next year, tourists from the US rushed in to capture as many photos as they could of what appeared to be the last bastion of the Cold War. Cuban-American families living in the US, many of whom had never returned since leaving, traveled home to visit loved ones. And fueled by historic flows of remittances and cash from tourism, semi-private businesses began to pop up around the island. And then, Raul Castro announced the impossible, he was stepping down as president to allow for elections.
Cuba, it seemed, had turned over a new leaf.
Enter Donald Trump
The Trump administration immediately moved to undue Obama’s progressive polices toward Cuba. They restricted travel and remittances flows to the island, removed key personnel from the US Embassy in La Havana, and pressured allies to stop doing business with the Cuban government.
Suddenly, it felt as if the Cold War had never ended at all. And just as Javier predicted back in 2015, the draconian policies didn’t weaken the Cuban government, they strengthened it. Cut off from the largest market in the world, everyday Cubans like Javier and his family turned back to the Communist Party.
As alternative forms of income began to dry up around the island, who could blame them?
*Benjamin Waddell is a Havana Times guest writer