How will Cuba react if relations with the US reverse under Trump?

It's hard to know what direction US-Cuba relations will take once Donald Trump is in the White House, but Cubans are already contemplating the consequences of a reversal of President Obama's normalization process.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A Cuban wearing a US national flag applauds as President Obama's convoy passes by in the rain toward Old Havana, Cuba, March 20. Mr. Obama's trip to the island nation was a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raúl Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries.

A version of this post ran on American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies AULA Blog. The views expressed are the authors' own.

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under incoming President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington. 

Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the president-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation. 

Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of US willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of US pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from US-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Mr. Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. US retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked. A US return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela. Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements. 

Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization – its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord, its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union, and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – has boosted the country’s international image, and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.

However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro has said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

Fulton Armstrong is director of American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies AULA blog.

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