What does Trump mean to Cubans? It's complicated
By STEVE LIPSHER
January 27, 2017 at 12:00 pm
My hostess in Havana, speaking in English, frequently invoked a phrase:
Whether giving directions to navigating the narrow streets of historic
Habana Vieja or describing the intricacies of operating a private hostel
in an officially socialistic country, Aida would start her response
with: "It's complicated."
And don't even get her started on what thawing relations between the
United States and Cuba — and whether they will continue under Donald
Trump's administration — could mean to her business.
These days, Cubans are allowed the greatest freedoms since La Revolución
57 years ago — when Fidel Castro came to power — now that his brother
Raul has ascended to the presidency and economic and social pressures
both outside the country and inside have loosened government restrictions.
They're allowed, like Aida, to own some small enterprises (although the
government still runs most of the "establishment" businesses, including
hotels, restaurants, gas stations and stores), they're allowed to buy
and sell their homes, and many even are winning permission to travel abroad.
Groceries and everyday necessities, once subject to shortages and long
waits, now are readily available, although the choices are limited.
(Cubans still queue up for any number of government services, including
banking. But I had been forewarned by friends to bring sports bars, and
toilet paper, and baseballs for the kids; only the latter ended up
serving any purpose.)
Meanwhile, a growing wave of Americans is washing ashore, lured by
Cuba's famous white-sand beaches and vibrant Havana's decaying colonial
buildings, infectious live music and classic 1950s cars.
While most Yanquis still travel in legal, organized groups established
for cultural exchange, language immersion and religious activities, a
growing number are visiting independently and only pseudo-legally,
emboldened by the Obama administration's signals and lax enforcement of
the Cold War-era U.S. trade embargo.
All of that could change under Trump, the Cubans well know, although
most seemed optimistic and hopeful that he doesn't clamp down. "He is
supposed to be a good businessman, and we are open for business," one
Havana cab driver told me, echoing the voices I heard regularly.
Of course, every single fellow traveler I encountered said they were in
Cuba now "before it changes." It is a country not so much caught in a
time warp — the fantastic tail fins and hood ornaments notwithstanding —
as it is relatively unsullied by the American influences of McDonald's
and Starbucks and the stereotypical "ugly American" tourists who expect
sanitized Disneyland experiences and English-speaking locals.
The Cubans have survived the U.S. embargo by their own pluck, by trading
with other countries in Latin America and by hosting tourists from
Canada and Europe, who have been showing up all along. Opening the doors
fully to the United States would only accelerate the rising standard of
living, they say.
A 2 ½-hour bus ride from the joyful squalor of Havana, the sleepy
waterfront village of Playa Larga has the laid-back feel of any
Caribbean beach town. Here, at the head of the infamous Bay of Pigs
— site of Cuba's proudest military victory, over CIA-backed Cuban exiles
— crystal-clear turquoise water and a wonderfully healthy coral reef
attract scuba divers and snorkelers from around the world.
Nearly every cinderblock home within walking distance of the bay
displays the official sign as a sanctioned "casa particular" — private
homes where travelers can stay for an average of $30 a night (many
booked and paid for, in American dollars, online). At least a dozen new
homes are under construction.
"Is good," my host there said, using English for emphasis, about the new
development, as he showed off a modern beachside resort hotel built just
a couple of years ago. A horse-drawn wagon loaded with children — the
equivalent of a school bus — trundled past as it headed out to
more-remote homes scattered throughout the mangroves.
We talked about how, when circumspectly criticizing Fidel Castro, Cubans
would stroke their chins to pantomime his beard and avoid mentioning his
name. Then — acknowledging that Trump is a controversial figure who
makes overtures of imposing Castro-like restrictions on American
liberties and the media — he joked that perhaps we'll start our own
version, running our fingers along imaginary combed-back hair.
He asked me if I thought Trump would make changes in Cuban policy.
I answered: "It's complicated."
Steve Lipsher (email@example.com) of Silverthorne writes a monthly
column for The Denver Post.
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