Trumped Cubans

Everyone’s talking about it, stunned still. Cubans and foreigners alike are godsmacked by Trump’s victory and Republican control of Congress. A steady stream of locals and Yuma have been making their way to Cuba Libro, dazed, incredulous, tears in their eyes. No matter if they hail from here or there, everyone posits the same question: WTF?!

Just this morning one of our Cuban regulars came in and said: ‘Conner, explain this to me.’ What amigo? Trump? I asked. ‘Yeah. What the fuck?’ He was followed by a pair of Tulane students on a semester abroad at the University of Havana, heads hanging in their frappuccinos, questioning everything: what future do young people of color have in the USA? What happened to our country’s moral compass? Should I be afraid to go back? They admitted they are afraid to go back.

The shock Cubans are experiencing (US election news has been all over the TV, on the radio, in the papers, and on the street) is accompanied by confusion. A lot of people are askin me to explain the electoral college, not understanding how more people voted for Hillary but she lost regardless. They’re not alone and I’m buoyed by the emergence and strengthening of initiatives to abolish the electoral college and unite progressives (read: the sane) across the country. Many Cubans are also wondering why the two instances in recent memory where the candidate winning the popular vote lost the election were Democrats.

What Cubans do know is that the USA is a very polarized country – something many have sensed, either through conversations with family and friends or by traveling there themselves, but which they’ve seen taken to the extreme in this presidential election. They also know about the crash of the Canadian immigration webpage in the wake of Trump’s unexpected triumph. They know Californians (or some of them anyway) are mounting an initiative to secede. They’re quite aware that the House and Senate are under complete Republican control – and this is causing no small measure of fear and anxiety; the George W Bush years are still fresh in everyone’s mind here. Including mine – I survived two terms in Havana under that regime. It was brutal and cruel: family visits only once every three years, regardless of circumstance, including death of your mom, dad or other immediate family member, reduced remittances, and harassment/prosecution of US citizens and residents traveling to ‘the forbidden isle.’

Other interesting comments revealing Cubans’ analytical capacity and knowledge over the past few days include:

– “And that email shit the FBI pulled a week before the election? With no demonstrable evidence? That’s democracy?! They totally screwed with the election!”
– “We’re going to see a lot of Cuban viejitos returning to the island after their Medicare is cut.”
“Michael Moore was right.”

Logically, what people here are watching closely, almost exclusively, is Trump’s platform (to use the term very loosely) as regards Cuba. Rolling back all the Executive Orders put into motion by Obama; returning Cuba to the list of nations sponsoring terrorism; and assuring the embargo stays in place (guaranteed regardless, since only Congress can lift it). Of course, what Cubans fear the most is any change in their extraordinarily privileged immigration status. For those still unclear how the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy works: any Cubans reaching US shores, by whatever means, receives a financial aid package, housing placement, job training, free English classes, and food stamps. This is complimented by the Cuban Adjustment Act which bestows an ever-coveted US green card to Cubans after a year in the country. I know many Cubans who have taken advantage of this sweetheart deal and the difference it makes for a recently-arrived immigrant – even if they arrived illegally – is immeasurable, unbelievable, yet totally real.

Under Trump, all of this preferential treatment is in danger of going the way of Bernie Sanders. Cubans from Mexico to Brazil, Sandino to Maisí, are crapping their pants. For some, the decision to emigrate across the Straits is easier than cheating on their spouse (kind of a no-brainer here). The process and cost and risk of emigrating is a huge burden, don’t get me wrong, but the decision? Some Cubans – no matter how much they love their native land, no matter their affinity for their pueblo – can’t or won’t tolerate it here. For them, the decision to go is easy.

For others, the decision is one of torment and stress. I have a dear friend who fell in love with a Mexican and although she had never considered leaving Cuba, you know the things we do for love. She left her mother, father, brothers and ailing grandmother, not to mention many friends, and moved to Mexico. Most Cubans “moving” to Mexico only do so in order to cross the border to the United States, where they receive the aforementioned benefits extended to Cubans leaving the island. This is a very popular way to go north – so common that Cubans buy work contracts in Mexico for $6000. Alternatively, Mexican women make themselves available for marriage to Cubans (making them eligible for a Mexican visa), for the tidy sum of $10,000. My friend, who struggled with her decision but ultimately surrendered to love, discovered after several months that love which ignites fast burns out faster. And she also discovered that Mexicans can be ‘insuportable.’ So she’s been desperately trying to save enough money to cross the border into the States. She hasn’t enough savings as of this writing to get a bus to the next town, let alone to the border and beyond. Now with Trump – he who wants to erect a wall between the USA and Mexico – my friend’s plan will probably crumble. I fear for her. This is heavy stuff for a 26-year old who had never traveled far from Havana.

Then there’s Enrique. He stopped by yesterday to unburden himself. Last weekend, he sold his house in La Lisa and stashed the $9000 with some trusted family members, with instructions to not release a cent, even if he came begging. I do this for Cuban friends who don’t trust themselves with money. I congratulated Enrique – on both the successful house sale and his sage decision to park his fulitas with family in a faraway province. But he looked worried.

‘What’s up chico?’ I asked.
Little did I know what was coming.

‘It’s this Trump shit. I can’t believe it. I can’t sleep. I’m not sure what to do.’

This is Enrique’s story: the house sale was to finance his emigration to the United States, a place he never wanted to live, never wanting to be ‘just another Cubanito among millions.’ He’s even had job offers, good job offers, in Amerika. But he has a two-year old son he has never met and his Japanese wife of nine years in Tokyo. Getting from Cuba to Japan takes money and a visa and then what? He arrives in Tokyo just to be a burden to his wife, a stranger in a strange land, where he’ll struggle to communicate, find work, and have fun. So he made the difficult decision to sell his house and emigrate to Florida, working in his cousin’s construction business and saving to travel to Japan in year or two’s time. Enrique’s plans are also slated to go to shit under Trump.
He sipped his cappuccino. ‘I’ll just have to wait and see.’

As for me, things have just gotten too weird. President Trump? Secretary of State Giuliani? Sign me up for the alien abduction.

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22 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

22 responses to “Trumped Cubans

  1. Mauricio

    The Trump “election” was devastating at many levels. Other than the obvious surreality of someone like him stepping into that kind of role, what are even scarier are 2 things: the political “planets and satellites” that surround him… and the realization that, likely, close to 50% of Americans are, either, racist, homophobic, mysoginist (including women, however self-deprecating that is), religious zealots, ignorant, illiterate OR ALL OF THE ABOVE.

    The fact that Latinos, women and especially Florida Cubans were involved in this disaster is mind-blowing to say the least.

    Most of these Cubans (me thinks) were already planning their “triumphant” comeback to the island to rub in their poor relatives’ faces how well-off they were vs. them. Buying loads of property through them and planning out their comfortable and inexpensive retirement in a tropical setting. Those trips, money transfers, and expectations have “left the building”. To think that there are “Cubans” outside of the island that are capable of wishing THE POPULATION the worst of fates to try to topple the Castros (good luck with that) is inhuman, to say the least.

    The victims of the embargo and everything that comes with will NEVER be the government and always be the people. If that hasn’t been clear in over half a century, I can’t think it ever will.

    It will be a sad state of things not only for my beloved Cuban people, but for the rest of all us mortals that have to suffer the consequences of whatever the USA does. As they say, “when the USA sneezes”, most other countries “catch a cold”.

    Let’s all brace ourselves because we’re in for a long and scary ride.

    • David

      I wouldn’t say 50% of Americans that voted are racist etc..as you described. Some of them clearly wanted changed and have been left behind by globalization. If you dig deeper you’ll find many of them share the same thoughts many people voted for Brexit. Even 1st world countries have citizens who feel their voice wasn’t being heard.

  2. Hey Conner,
    I understand your shock. Many here feel the same way.
    The reason I assume…many people are desperate for something else.
    First, Trump is a businessman and many industries are looking at long range goals outside our borders. Hearts and minds are changing here regarding what to do regarding Cuba.
    As you have probably witnessed by the influx of travelers there.
    I have not read or heard anything specific from Trump about policy changes regarding Cuba since his election announcement. I take that as a good sign. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. If you have to sell your house and put all the money in buying a job in Mexico that is a lot of money 😦

  4. Max

    Now that Commandante Fidel is gone, Trump’s sentiments have been made clear: the same old same old gusano tripe we’ve heard for decades. Looks like MAGA is just shorthand for leaning on the weak then lying about it.

  5. Moses

    I am still in shock (in a bad way) about the Trump victory. However, the Castros had a chance to negotiate with a far more reasonable Obama administration and they blew him off. Now, it would appear that Trump plans to reverse some of the giveaways that Obama put in place. It is their own fault. The Castros arrogance forced them to make a bad decision. It would be easy to gloat but the likely negative impact of the Trump administration on the Cuban people concerns me.

    • Hi Moses. Im interested to learn why you think they “blew him off?” Thanks for reading.

      • Moses

        Fidel published a letter 2 days after the Obama visit which basically said there would be no reciprocity. Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Minister gave a speech the day after the letter repeating the response that there would be no charge to the Castros political policy. As a practical matter, the dictatorship increased short-term detentions of dissidents, and so on. In short, F*CK YOU OBAMA, if you think your visit made a difference.

      • I think its a bit more nuanced/complex than that: Cuba has said that there will not be full normalization between the 2 countries until the embargo is lifted and the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned to Cuba, two issues which directly impinge on the sovereignty of the country (and the former has extraterritorial applications which violate all manner of sovereignty of OTHER nations). I agree with you that Obama’s visit made little difference in the scheme of things; what is really having an impact here are domestic, internal reforms (going on since 2010) and of course, Trumps victory has everyone terrified.

      • Moses

        I will grant you that my blunt object response could be refined and bit but I believe that basically Fidel’s letter was published to extinguish the love affair that the Cuban public was generating for Obama. I think that you would agree with me that the optics of the Obama visit were very positive. Raul looked old and uncomfortable at the joint press conference. Probably because he is old and uncomfortable in that setting. Obama, cruising around Habana Vieja with his family and going to the baseball game in shirtsleeves? What’s not to love? So Fidel decided to nip that crap in the bud. Was it more “nuanced” than that? Of course, but for a public schooled guy like me, it is summed up like this: so what Obama, nothing is going to change on this end. My original point remains, what Obama could not provoke with honey, Trump seems to want to extract by force. Force being defined as the threat of reversing policy.

      • Raul often looks uncomfortable; not surprising, he’s got a tough row to how. Don’t think the letter was designed to “extinguish the love affair Cuban public was generating for Obama” (everyone here was fully aware that he was already out the door, so no need to douse what was very soon going to be moot regardless). My reading is that it’s purpose was to underscore the Cuban position. And besides, there have been HUGE changes on this end, pre-dating Dec 17, 2014.

      • Always a joy reading your blog….tell me more about the huge changes since December 2014. I am interested to know what you see and feel.
        Besides lots of Yuma’s filling up the place. Tell me some good things happening for the everyday man.
        I hear from other parts, outside of the city and they don’t see the change.
        If anything, more shortages especially eggs, which is like their meat. Tell me something good Conner. I could use a little hope.

      • The big changes are coming from within, thanks to the “Lineamientos”, domestic economic reform package which began debate and rollout in 2010-2011 (a good book on this period is Cuban Revelations by Marc Frank), not so much due to Dec 17, 2014 (happy Normalization Day everyone!). Buying and selling of homes and cars, authorization of 200+ activities for private business, doing away with the exit permit – these are all positive steps taken by Cuban legislators to spur creativity, productivity and social development. More afforadable and widespread access to Internet, improvement in investigative reporting, raising of salaries in strategic sectors (not enough, but a goodwill gesture noentheless) are also positive. There’s a long way to go and tons more still to do but a few steps forward (even with one back and another two to the side) is still progress.

        Obama’s executive orders (which can be reversed by Trump with the stroke of a pen), have made travel for Cuban families easier, cheaper, and less stressful and that is a very good thing. As are collaborative projects in health, medicine and science.

        PS – eggs are called salvavidas here (lifesavers) since they were the only protein available to many people during the Special Period (and still are for many people). Thanks for reading and writing in

  6. MJ

    I just came back from my 5th “illegal” trip to Cuba. Living in the Palm Beach area I can now travel nonstop in an hour. I like visiting Cuba for the fact it is so different. However, I always leave Cuba feeling melancholy. I guess it doesn’t help that the taxi driver the entire way to Jose Marti bitched about the govt and that he’s probably too old to move to his dream country …the USA. Having visited Cuba several times and being from the US, I know the reality of both places. Cuba is no doubt a hard place to live, but has the advantages of being a place where people live a simple life free of many of the stresses we have over. I always leave thinking I will never visit Cuba again. I’m not sure why. Is it the decrepit beautiful buildings that just sit there waiting to fall down? Is it the smiling people I see, who have not a lot hope ? Is it the huge pothole I accidentally stepped in that was filled with water and pulled my brand new sneaker off? Is it the fact that I spent $100 last night on dinner at a Paladar, which is easily 2 months of a Cubans wages.

    I never liked Fidel Castro or really believed in any of his views, however I understand he gave Cubans medical and education. Here are all of these educated people feeling hopeless. I wonder as an American who is to blame. Is it the embargo or was it Castro’s ego that allowed the city of Havana to crumble. I don’t agree with the embargo, but I also don’t know how he let the entire countries industries just fall into ruins. Cuba confuses me.

    Conner, I’m not sure how you deal with living there. I guess a unique person can get used to living like an average Cuban, although I’m doubtful you do. I don’t know you, but if you have the resources to travel to and from the island then you’re not an average Cuban.

    I’ve read over the past year that Cuba is going to change and it seems as it has changed. Now with the warming of relations more Americans are going there. The Euros and Canadians have been using Cuba as a cheap place to go. However, besides providing the govt with money, places like Havana didn’t benefit as nothing new was even built there up until a year ago.

    Sorry this is a rambling message. I’m not a good writer.

    • Moses

      MJ, I share your confusion. My wife is Cuban so my confusion manifests itself somewhere between acceptance and anger. My in-laws in Guantanamo are all college-educated but were it not for the monthly care package that my wife sends, their lives would be markedly worse. I don’t blame the embargo. Fidel destroyed Cuba period. Cuba has never lacked access to trade with Mexican, Canadian, Russian, and Chinese companies. What Cuba lacks is the money to engage in that trade. That is a result of low productivity. Low productivity is a result of Castro socialism. I also share your comments regarding Conner. Only when you are forced to live on the 25 cuc average monthly salary that a majority of Cubans must live on can you truly say that you live like Cubans live.

      • I eschew the dogmatic and anyone who thinks Reality X or Reality Y in Cuba (or anywhere for that matter) is due to one single factor (eg “Fidel destroyed Cuba period”) fails to analyze Issue X or Issue Y in a comprehensive way. Also, should you find somewhere in several years’ posting on this blog where I “say that [I] live like Cubans live,” I will gladly eat crow.

      • Moses

        Ouch! I stand corrected. You haven’t claimed such a thing….directly. I do however stand by my comment that Fidel destroyed Cuba. He had help, of course, but if he deserves the praise for the gains in education and health care Cuba, he must shoulder the blame for the bad stuff as well.

  7. John Corbett

    Like you I’m finding it very hard to accept Donald Trump’s assent to the White House and worry about the uncertain future that seemed promising only a few weeks ago . I do think the toothpaste is out of the tube now and positive changes will come . Cuba is ready and Cubans will be calling the shots for a change . I admire you’re writing and humorous accounts of daily life in Cuba . Cheers !

    • Hey John. thanks for the props. Things have been so super hectic over here (Im working over 60 hours a week and haven’t had one day off in two weeks plus Im writing a new book) and it’s all eating into the writing time. Making some changes in 2017 to remedy that, so hopefully more tales from the island to come soon. I attended a conference yesterday by former Whip Tom Dashcle where he talked almost exclusively about the Trump victory and what it means for cuba. Mostly a wait and see approach but there are some troubling signs on the wall. happy New Year?!

      • John Corbett

        Happy New year to you as Well . I just wanted to ad one thing , I think President Obama will play a roll post whitehouse in preserving the thaw in relations between you’re two countries . I think he senses the historical significance of doing so and knows the only way forward requires respect and trust .

      • What kind of role do you see for him? On a practical, policy level, there’s not much he can do, I’m afraid and whatever words and actions he might put forth regarding respect and trust (and I agree with you that to move forward this is imperative, but it’s also a minefield – there’s SO much distrust after decades of hostile policy) will be eclipsed by the vitriole coming from the Trump administration. Already, the president elect has said – repeatedly – that unless Cuba caves to US dictates moving forward, there will be no moving forward. Anyone who knows even a little about this island knows that this approach is a failure out of the gate. One thing we can be fairly certain of however is that Cuba will not be high on the priority list for Washington; not for a little while (or until there’s a bilateral crisis of some sort – whether its an extreme weather event, immigration wave, or disease outbreak) anyway. Not feeling all that optimistic about the USA lately but hey, you live in Canada, right! What do you have to worry about?? This is tongue in cheek: I think the world has to worry about Trump…..

  8. John Corbett

    Perhaps just wishful thinking on my part but I think he will be a polarizing voice of reason at least . The entire world is worried about the Trump presidency and what it means for all of us . He has demonstrated time and again that he cannot be trusted to keep his word , that’s indisputable at this point . Which is why any solutions he comes up with concerning the status quo will be suspect . I was so optimistic about the future but you’re right at best it will be delayed and the worst is too hard to think about now . Keep up the good work ..Cheers

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