Cuba, though angered by terror designation, is looking past Trump

By Ed Augustin and Kirk Semple

When the Trump administration announced this week that it was designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, the reaction in Havana was swift and vociferous.

The Cuban government accused Washington of hypocrisy, and called the label an act of “political opportunism” by President Donald Trump to obstruct relations between Cuba and the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Beyond indignation, though, Cubans are ready to move on, a sentiment underlined by their president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who tweeted on Tuesday that the U.S. decision had been made in “the death throes of a failed and corrupt administration.”

For the Cuban government and its people, the change in U.S. presidential administrations can’t come soon enough.

Trump’s hard-line approach to the Cuban leadership has led to an array of restrictions on tourism, visas, remittances, investments and commerce, which have worsened an already poor economy. The pandemic has compounded the problems, in large part by bringing tourism, a major source of foreign currency, to a grinding halt.

Facing profound shortages of necessities like medicine and food, Cubans have been forced to stand in lines for hours in the hope of getting their hands on the meager stocks that exist. Supplies have gotten so thin that the government made it illegal for people to buy rice beyond their government-restricted monthly allotments.

Amid this hardship, many in Cuba are hoping that Biden will shift U.S. policy in ways that might ease the economic duress. The president-elect has said little publicly about his policy goals for Cuba, although during the campaign he attacked Trump’s approach to Havana, saying, “Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy today than it was four years ago.”

And Biden’s advisers have allowed that a normalization of relations with Cuba — essentially a return to the Obama-era detente — was the best strategy for effecting positive change.

Senior foreign policy personnel on the Biden transition team — including Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, and Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary — were involved in the negotiations with Cuba during President Barack Obama’s second term.

“Biden’s team is not just parachuting in with no prior experience,” said Rafael Hernández, a political scientist and the chief editor of Temas, Cuba’s leading social sciences magazine. “They can pick up on the consensus they created during 2015-2016.”

And that’s the hope of many in Cuba.

“Biden means: hope that the worst is over,” said Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada, who lives part time in Havana. “He means: the possibility of a renewed Obama-style opening. He means: listening to the CIA, the Pentagon and Homeland Security on the value of Cuba as a friend and collaborator and not an enemy.”

The decision to return Cuba to the list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism — a designation that last applied for more than three decades, until Obama lifted it in 2015 — capped a relentless effort by the Trump administration to impose economic and diplomatic restrictions on the island.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others “worked with focus on repealing anything that could be seen as a benefit to the Cuba government,” said Ted A. Henken, associate professor of sociology at Baruch College in New York.

Although Trump’s company had been looking into investing in Cuba shortly before he took office, as president he has hit the communist-ruled island with the harshest sanctions in more than a half-century. American cruise ships were prohibited from docking on the island, remittances from the United States were banned and tankers carrying oil from Venezuela were prevented from arriving with their cargo.

“The only thing left is diplomatic relations,” Henken said. “We still do officially have diplomatic relations with Cuba, even though they are on ice in actual practice.”

These efforts by the Trump administration to reverse the Obama initiatives have set back the development of the private sector in Cuba and short-circuited efforts by American businesses that had tried to build relations based on the Obama detente, he said.

Diaz-Canal, a low-key figure hand-picked by his predecessor, Raúl Castro, has emphasized continuity from the Castro era but has also plowed ahead with economic reforms.

On Jan. 1, he unified the nation’s dual currency system to make the island’s labyrinthine economy more transparent and easier to navigate for foreign investors. Last year, his administration allowed the private sector to import and export directly, a move analysts described as a pragmatic response to the economic crisis.

Díaz-Canel has been mostly silent, at least publicly, on the potential for a thaw after Biden takes office. But on Nov. 8, he acknowledged Biden’s victory with a suggestion of hope, writing on Twitter: “We recognize that the US people have chosen a new direction in the presidential elections. We believe in the possibility of having a constructive bilateral relation while respecting our differences.”

In reinstating Cuba to the terrorism list, Pompeo cited Cuba’s hosting of 10 Colombian rebel leaders, along with a handful of American fugitives wanted for crimes committed in the 1970s, and Cuba’s support for the authoritarian leader of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.

As the Cuban government has railed on social media and in the Cuban media against the terrorism designation, some Cubans have processed the news with a weary frustration.

“The U.S. is doing this to make things here explode,” said Liber Salvat, 35, a carpenter in downtown Havana who has been out of work and unable to get his hands on lumber since the onset of the pandemic.

“It would be better,” he said, “if they helped us.”

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