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Can Donald Trump change Cuba?

Much of Miami rallied behind the US president in reinstating the Cuban embargo. Reactions on the island have been predictably less enthusiastic. Bernie Woodall/Reuters

Donald Trump has ended America’s détente with Cuba, restoring restrictions on travel to and business with the Caribbean island nation.

In December 2014, Cuban president Raúl Castro and then US president Barack Obama announced in simultaneous speeches that after a 50-year stand off, diplomatic relations between the two nations would be “normalised”, reopening embassies in Havana and Washington and enabling American citizens to visit Cuba relatively freely.

Under Trump’s new rules, which are really a return to the old American policy of isolation, Trump has reaffirmed “the United States statutory embargo of Cuba”. The embassies will remain (for now) but the flow of US tourists and dollars is severely restrained for the foreseeable future.

In his June 16 speech in Miami, Trump also took aim at Cuba’s military (the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR in Spanish) and said that he would “expose the crimes of the Castro regime.”

In Trump’s old-school approach, any improvement of US-Cuba relations will now depend on political change in Havana, with Washington monitoring “Cuba’s progress — if any — toward greater political and economic freedom”.

Cuba’s response was swift and defiant. “The Cuban government denounces the new measures hardening the blockade that are destined to fail … and that will not achieve their aim of weakening the revolution”, read a statement from Havana announced on the evening news.

Indeed, rather than spur political transition, Trump’s revamped old policy will more likely have a paradoxical effect on Cuba, seriously damaging the economy while actually galvanising the political system.

Cuba’s president, Raul Castro (left), was quick to condemn the new US policy. Marcelino Vazquez/Reuters

An indirect military battle

Cuba may not be the same regime that the US embargo was designed to debilitate, but it is still governed by the same civil-military coalition.

The Communist Party embodies Cuba’s commitment to anti-capitalist ideals, building consent among civil society. The FAR, which comprises ground, naval and aerial military forces as well as the Youth Labour Army, is the institutionalised expression of Cuban nationalism.

Its goal is to ensure readiness against any external threat. Historically, that’s been the US.

This is the force that the US president is taking on with his new economic policy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, which left Cuba alone in a “capitalist sea”, the FAR has been deeply involved in economic management.

The FAR: ever vigilant against US encroachments on Cuban sovereignty. Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Castro’s current “economy czar”, Marino Murillo, is a FAR-trained economist, and the FAR is also home to the Business Management Group, or GAESA, which receives around 50% of hard-currency Cuban earnings. GAESA is present in virtually all sectors of the Cuban economy, including tourism, which will be among the areas hardest hit by Trump’s revamped policy.

Trump actually kept in place one key aspect of Obama’s approach: earning the trust of Cuban small businesses. But he added a twist. Where Obama sought “to empower the nascent Cuban private sector”, Trump will channel “economic activities away from the Cuban military” while continuing to allow American individuals and entities to develop economic ties in Cuba.

In reducing tourism, the new US policy explicitly seeks to block the flow of US dollars to the military-led GAESA. In the years just prior to Obama’s 2015 detente, the number of Americans travelling to Cuba oscillated between 60,000 to 100,000. In 2015, it grew to 160,000. The next year, some 290,000 US tourists visited the island.

Americans still account for just 7% of the island’s international tourists (second to Canada, which sent 1.2 million visitors). But any contraction in that sector will have a negative economic effect on Cuba, which earned US$2.9 billion from tourism in 2016, up from US$2.4 billion in 2014.

Old Havana is an increasingly popular US tourist attraction. Or, at least, it was. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Trump’s new policy will mean less hard currency in the hands of the Cuban state. This reduces its ability to buy commodities from the international market, ranging from energy to – critically – food. Cuba currently imports more than 60% of its domestic food requirements.

This difficult economic situation is compounded by the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, a regional ally that is no longer a reliable source of cheap oil.

The US monster reawakens

For more than 50 years, the US embargo served as a potent tool for the Communist Party, enabling it to survive through scarcity and turmoil by presenting itself as a bulwark against an imperial US set on subjugating the Cuban people to its will.

Among Cubans, the US is sometimes referred to simply as el monstruo – “the monster” – a nickname first used by revolutionary Jose Marti in 1895.

By attacking GAESA based on the (demonstrably errant) idea – shared by both Obama and Trump – that capitalism brings democracy, Trump is more likely to feed the anti-imperialist sentiment of the Cuban military, strengthening its relevance.

Trump rolled back much of president Barack Obama’s ‘normalisation’ process with Cuba. Joe Skipper/Reuters

Much as Fidel Castro did throughout the 20th century, the FAR is now well positioned to capitalise on being under US attack, portraying the Cuban military at the front line of the anti-Trump movement. Already, the return of the hawkish attitude in Washington has revived the old televised calls on the island for Cubans to unite against the eternal threat lying just across the Florida Strait.

Havana also pointed out the hypocrisy in Trump’s claim that human rights are at the core of his Cuba policy.

“We have serious worries about the respect and guarantee of human rights in that country,” Havana replied, referring to well-publicised American injustices such as police violence, gun crime, racial discrimination, lack of health care, gender inequality and accounts of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, which sits on occupied Cuban land.

There also remains the glaring contradiction in Washington demanding political change from Cuba while turning a blind eye to authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, for example.

Cuba is no democracy. Inspired by China and Vietnam, Raúl Castro has tried to reform the economy while maintaining a one-party system, and the regime continues to censor the media and repress political dissidence.

In re-embargoing Cuba, Trump is certainly adding an obstacle to Raúl Castro’s economic plans, but doing so won’t change Cuba for the better. Instead, transgressing the country’s hard-won sovereignty will only strengthen the political forces there that oppose democracy.

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