Senior Cuban negotiators say the island will not be cowed by intimidation and bluster from Donald Trump, despite the incoming US president’s threat to rekindle cold war animosities.
“Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba, ”Josefina Vidal, a foreign ministry department head, told the Guardian.
Cuba’s wait-and-see approach is guided by Trump’s unpredictability – and the knowledge that all previous 11 US administrations held talks with representatives from Havana despite the often hawkish public rhetoric coming from Washington.
Vidal has led the island’s negotiating team with the US since 2013, including 18 months of secret discussions, facilitated by Canada and the Vatican, that led to the joint announcement by Cuban president Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on 17 December 2014 of a normalization of diplomatic relations.
Trump has warned that he is prepared to undo that progress. During the US election campaign, he told an audience of rightwing Cuban exiles in Miami: “All of the concessions that Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them and that is exactly what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”
But Cuban officials say that they plan to wait for action rather than words because Trump has repeatedly flip-flopped on the issue of rapprochement – and also put his business interests above his country’s laws.
During the campaign, it emerged that Trump sent his corporate representatives to Cuba in 1998, and again in the 2000s to probe for openings, in violation of the US trade embargo. Three months after launching his campaign to become the Republican party candidate, Trump was the only GOP contender to express a positive opinion of the reopening of bilateral relations, saying “the concept of opening with Cuba is fine”.
Trump’s transition team includes several figures linked to Cuban American groups which take a hard line on Cuba, advocating the continuation of the US blockade and an end to rapprochement.
Dr Yleem Poblete has been named to Trump’s national Security Council “landing team”, lawyer John Barsa to the Department of Homeland Security, and lawyer Mauricio Claver-Carone an adviser to the treasury department. Claver-Carone is executive director of the US-Cuba Democracy Pac and among the fiercest opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy.
But Vidal says it is “too early” to predict which path the new administration will follow. “There are also other functionaries, businessmen, that Trump has named, including in government roles, who are in favour of business with Cuba, people who think that the US will benefit from cooperation with Cuba, on issues linked to the national security of the US,” she points out.
Her analysis of Trump’s unpredictability – particularly in contrast to Obama – is echoed by Ricardo Alarcón, until recently considered the third-most influential man in Cuban politics.
“For two years we have been talking to a sophisticated president with an intelligent, skillful discourse. Now we have a gentleman who is capable of saying anything and nobody is sure what he is going to do,” said Alarcón, who spent 30 years representing Cuba at the United Nations and another 20 years as president of the country’s national assembly before retiring in 2013.
From the 1970s to the 2000s, Alarcón led secret talks with US officials through a backdoor channel that was first opened by Che Guevara in 1961, just eight months after diplomatic relations had officially been broken off.
Whether this historical willingness to engage in discussion is continued under Trump will depend on whether the new president takes a pragmatic economic approach or a confrontational political line.
Rafael Hernandez, the director of Temas, an influential journal of political and social debate published in Havana, believes Trump’s business instincts will prevail over the threats.
“This is all bluff. And we are accustomed to the bluff from the governments of the United States,” Hernandez says. “I don’t underestimate Trump’s capacity for aggression, I am simply saying that this is a state that is motivated by interests and the interests are in favour of business, and in the case of Cuba lifting the blockade is nothing more than responding to the interests of business.”
There is little appetite in the US Congress for lifting the embargo, but over the past two years the Obama White House has passed a number of measures to improve ties between the two neighbours.
Listing the fruits of engagement at a conference last month, Vidal noted that in addition to Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2015 – the first by a US president for 88 years – there have also been 23 high-level visits, 51 technical meetings and 12 agreements signed in areas ranging from cooperation on the environment and air travel to health and the fight against drug trafficking. Twelve more were in the pipeline.
There has also been a dramatic spike in the movement of people between the two nations. Last week it was revealed that nearly 285,000 US citizens visited Cuba in 2016, a growth of 74% on the previous year. Add a similar number of Cuban American visitors and over half a million people travelled to Cuba from the US.
Full migration in the opposite direction, however, was disincentivised last week, when the White House announced the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” migration policy, which privileged Cuban arrivals in the US over migrants from other countries, granting them automatic residency and citizenship within one year.
Although commercial ties are minimal and financial restrictions remain in place, Obama used his executive powers to grant licenses to selected US companies to operate in Cuba: six telecoms, four cruises, one hotel, eight airlines and two small banks. In mid-December, Google signed a deal with the Cuban government to install servers on the island that will speed up access to the internet.
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, the first legal Cuban export to the US in more than 50 years will take place, in the form of 40 tons of charcoal produced in Cuban cooperative farms.
As they wait to see how much of this will be dismantled or continued by Trump, Cuban official stress the benefits of closer ties with the US go far beyond the island’s borders.
“These last two years show that many good things have been done not only for Cubans and for the Americans, but for others,” Vidal says. “Because when Cuba and the US cooperate in confronting drug trafficking, this is an important contribution to the region; or when Cuba and the US cooperate in confronting [viruses such as] zika, dengue and chikungunya, as we have been doing recently, we are making an important contribution to humanity. When Cuba and the US cooperated in Africa to fight Ebola, they made an important contribution to the health of the world.”
But nothing is taken for granted. The Cuban Communist party’s long-term development plan circulated for debate after the seventh congress in April 2016 makes no assumptions about changes in US policy toward Cuba. Raúl Castro has asserted the need for “civilized co-existence” with the US, but not at the cost of sovereignty and independence.
Dr Helen Yaffe is a fellow in the economic history department at the London School of Economics. The Cuban officials cited in the article were interviewed during research funded by a Rockefeller-LSE grant. The project is carried out with Nick Kitchen, from the US centre at LSE.
Jonathan Watts is The Guardian's Latin America Correspondent.
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