HAVANA/WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s threat to undo President Barack Obama’s detente with Cuba unless President Raul Castro abides by Trump’s list of demands is provoking widespread anxiety among ordinary Cubans, who were paying little attention to the U.S. presidential campaign until now.
Trump had been generally supportive of Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties and normalization of relations, saying he thought detente was “fine” although he would have cut a better deal.
Then, in Miami on Friday, the Republican nominee said he would reverse Obama’s series of executive orders unless Castro meets demands including “religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.” Castro said in a speech the following day that Cuba “will not renounce a single one of its principles,” reiterating a longstanding rejection of any U.S. pressure.
While Hillary Clinton maintains an electoral college advantage, Cubans are suddenly envisioning the possibility of a U.S. president who would undo measures popular among virtually everyone on the island, from hard-line communists to advocates of greater freedom and democracy.
“I don’t think he’d make such a drastic decision. Or would he?” Bernardo Toledo, a 72-year-old retired state worker, asked nervously. “It would be disgraceful.”
While the detente announced on Dec. 17, 2014, has had limited direct impact on most ordinary Cubans, it has created feelings of optimism about a future of civil relations with Cuba’s giant neighbor to the north. An Univision/Washington Post poll of 1,200 Cubans taken in March, 2015 found that 97 percent supported detente.
For most ordinary people in a country that’s had only two leaders over nearly six decades, and where the president’s word is law, Trump’s unexpected reversal was a reminder that a single election might wipe away those closer ties.
“All we want is to be left in peace. Isn’t he thinking about our families?” complained pharmacist Heidi Picot. “How could he do something like this, make everybody worried?”
Still, some Cuban experts on relations with the U.S. saw the candidate as merely pandering to anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in South Florida, and don’t believe a President Trump would follow through with his campaign pledge. Detente is increasingly popular among Cuban-Americans and South Florida pollsters say Trump is not ahead with them by the margins managed by previous Republicans who’ve won Florida.
Hillary Clinton has declared her support for continuing Obama’s policy, which has reopened the U.S. Embassy, re-established direct flights and removed Cuba from a list of state terror sponsors. It also has done away with most limits on cash remittances from the U.S and increased cooperation on topics ranging from law enforcement to public health.
“I don’t think it will be very easy for Trump to reverse some things,” former diplomat Carlos Alzugary said. “Break diplomatic relations? Put Cuba back on the list of terrorist states? Those things are almost impossible.”
Cuba’s state media had been virtually silent on the U.S. presidential campaign, seemingly uncertain of how to square the polarizing and highly competitive race with the oft-repeated Cuban assertion that U.S. democracy offers false choices between nearly identical corporate pawns.
Trump’s statement generated an unusual amount of official coverage over the weekend. State radio stations and other government-run media accused the Republican of pandering to Cuban-Americans in an attempt to win Florida’s electoral votes.
A Trump reversal would fit a historical pattern, started under Jimmy Carter, in which Democratic presidents build ties to Cuba and their Republican successors largely undo them.
Obama has worked hard to make the opening irreversible by building popular and corporate support at home. In Cuba, the government has welcomed some new ties, like scientific cooperation and commercial flights. It has stalled on others, like ferries from Florida. Some observers believe that’s because Castro’s government fears building ties that a hostile future U.S. administration could use in the interests of regime change.
The Cuban government has given no indication of whether Trump’s statement will give new impetus to U.S.-Cuba normalization, or cause the process to stall in what could be its last three months.
“It’s a way to move the economy forward, to diversify,” said Yenitsia Arango, a 34-year-old nurse. “The door’s been opened to better relations and it’s not a good idea to go in reverse.”
Trump’s campaign has meanwhile inserted itself into already tricky negotiations on a temporary spending bill needed to avert a government shutdown, siding with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in trying to block the government from ceding its limited role in overseeing some aspects of the internet.
“Donald J. Trump is committed to preserving Internet freedom for the American people and citizens all over the world. The U.S. should not turn control of the Internet over to the United Nations and the international community,” senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller said in a statement.
Democratic and Republican administrations have both supported a transition of the U.S. Commerce Department’s role in governing the internet’s domain name addressing systems, transferring responsibility to such stakeholders as technical experts, businesses and other governments.
The temporary spending bill is the top item on the congressional agenda before lawmakers leave Washington for the fall campaign. It also provides more than $1 billion in long-delayed funding to battle the Zika virus. Lawmakers hope negotiations on the measure will be wrapped up this week, though the pace of talks has been slow and Wednesday produced no visible breakthroughs.
Many experts say Cruz and his allies are greatly overstating the Commerce Department’s potential influence over internet content and spinning exaggerations and conspiracy theories. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is pushing to use the stopgap spending bill to at least delay the transition. Democratic negotiators like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada are strongly opposed to that effort.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., came out Wednesday in favor of adding money to the measure to address catastrophic flooding in Louisiana.
President Barack Obama has heeded calls by Louisiana’s governor and a congressional delegation and requested $2.6 billion to help Louisiana rebuild from last month’s devastating floods. Ryan didn’t volunteer how much money he supports. But the Republican speaker is opposed to a key demand of Democratic negotiators: money to help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system.
The flood aid question is one of a handful of unresolved issues involving the stopgap funding bill, which would prevent a shutdown next week and keep the government running through Dec. 9.
Meanwhile, the Senate rejected a resolution to block the Obama administration from selling more than $1 billion worth of American-made weapons to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Lawmakers backing the measure, including Rand Paul, R-Ky., are critical of the kingdom’s role in Yemen’s civil war, but Majority Leader McConnell opposed the resolution, which was killed by a 71-27 vote.
“I think it’s important to the United States to maintain as good a relationship with Saudi Arabia as possible,” McConnell said Tuesday.
The other big item on the Capitol Hill pre-election to-do list is an override vote on President Obama’s anticipated veto of legislation that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. Ryan predicted that “the votes are there for the override.” The vote is expected next week.
The Zika-fighting portion of the pre-election spending bill is nearly complete. Republicans have dropped language to block affiliates of Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico from receiving funding for prevention and treatment of Zika in the territory. Zika, which can cause grave birth defects, is often transmitted by sexual contact, and women are being advised to delay getting pregnant if they live in an area where Zika is widespread.
Negotiators on the measure hope a deal might be reached Wednesday, but negotiators have blown through several earlier deadlines.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Wednesday rebuffed accusations from Trump that the Fed plays politics with its interest rate policy.
“I can say emphatically that partisan politics plays no role in our decisions,” Yellen said, after the Fed decided to leave interest rates unchanged.
“We do not discuss politics at our meetings and we do not take politics into account in our decisions.”
Last week, Trump charged that Yellen was suppressing interest rates to bolster Obama’s popularity.
“It’s staying at zero because she’s obviously political and she’s doing what Obama wants her to do. I know that’s not supposed to be the way it is but that’s why it’s low,” Trump said.
He alleged that the Fed was leaving the painful task of raising rates to the next president.
He also said low rates were creating a “false market” and that stock markets were likely to drop sharply once rates eventually do go up.
“The new person who becomes president, let him raise interest rates or her raise interest rates and watch what happens to the stock market when that happens,” Trump said.
Speaking at a press conference, Yellen stressed that the Fed steers clear of politics — even with the looming presidential election.
“I want to lead an institution that is not political,” she said, adding that there will be no sign of political motivation in the transcripts of Fed policy meetings, which are normally released only after five years.
By statute, the Fed is an independent body intended to be shielded from political pressure and whose operations are not funded by Congress.
But Fed governors are nominated by the White House and approved by the Senate.