MARIEL – Church bells rang out and Cubans strung U.S. flags from their windows when President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the United States would stop trying to push Cuba toward collapse.
Obama’s new policy of engagement unleashed a flood of U.S. visitors, pumping cash into Cuba’s nascent private sector, even as the centrally planned economy hit its first recession in nearly a quarter century. Many Cubans did better. But most lives remained a grinding daily struggle. Jubilation faded to resignation.
President Donald Trump on Friday is expected to give the U.S.’s Cuba policy its second 180-degree spin in three years during an appearance in Miami, reviving the Cold War goal of starving Cuba’s communist system of cash while inciting the population to overthrow it. On the table: cutbacks on U.S. travel to Cuba and a ban on doing business with the military-linked conglomerate that controls much of the Cuban economy.
Ordinary Cubans are bracing for the worst. Across the island, people of all ages, professions and political beliefs expect rising tensions, fewer U.S. visitors and a harder time seeing relatives in the United States. And while some Cuban exiles in South Florida are celebrating, others question the wisdom of undoing a policy that had started showing results by increasing the number of Cubans economically independent of the government.
In 1980, some 125,000 Cubans fled the port of Mariel on boats to the U.S. in the largest single exodus of refugees in modern Cuban history. Today, the city 30 miles west of Havana is home to the county’s main cargo facility, where freighters unload containers of supplies for the country’s booming tourism industry.
A few miles from the gates of the port, 42-year-old Yosvani Reinoso works as a self-employed locksmith from a stand on Mariel’s main square
He hasn’t seen his life improve much since the U.S. and Cuba re-established friendly relations, but the restart of commercial flights after a half-century gave his wife hope she could afford to visit her 19-year-old son who emigrated to the U.S. two years ago.
Trump’s looming policy change has her worried that the cheaper, more convenient flights could soon be a thing of the past.
“All of the problems between the two countries need to end so she can go to the U.S. Embassy and say, ‘I want to see my son,’ buy a ticket and go for the weekend,” Reinoso said. “The best thing that can happen for the two countries is for all of these problems to end, for everything to be normal.”
In Havana, 53-year-old hairdresser Dioslans Castillo said Obama’s 2016 visit to Havana and his calls for Cubans to seize control of their economic destiny had inspired him to try to open a bar with gourmet food and cultural activities for LGBT Cubans.
“Obama incentivized entrepreneurship,” Castillo said. “His visit influenced society because the people saw the so-called opening, despite it happening in slow steps compared to the rhetoric. But with Trump, it’s all going to crash.”
Havana street performer/political analyst breaks down how Cubans feel about Trump rollback. pic.twitter.com/kMugvsG8LN
— Patrick Oppmann CNN (@CNN_Oppmann) June 14, 2017
Speaking from Miami, where he was working with anti-Castro Cuban-American groups ahead of Friday’s announcement, Cuban dissident Antonio Rodiles said he supports Trump’s plans and many ordinary Cubans do as well.
“Many, many people are telling me that we have to squeeze the government once and for all,” Rodiles said. “And many people I meet in the street have much tougher opinions than mine.”
Also in Miami, Roberto Pique, who left Cuba at age 15 in 1961, said that even though he wanted the Castro family to leave power, Obama’s actions had allowed Cubans to have more access to information. The number of Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba has increased and the government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi spots since the warming, greatly expanding internet access.
“Obama was a very wise man. He had something in mind, like playing chess with those people, the communists over there,” he said. “The Cubans have more access to what’s happening in the world because there are so many people traveling over there, their families,” said Pique, a retired juvenile probation officer. “I don’t think anything that (Trump) will do will help us get rid of those communists in Cuba. They have survived worse, unfortunately.”
Even opponents of Obama’s policy said they didn’t expect much from Trump’s proposal.
“He will make the same promises than the last 10 presidents have made Cuban-Americans here in Miami and nothing happens,” said Raul Masvidal, 75, a financial adviser who arrived in the U.S. in 1960 from the eastern Cuban city of Camaguey. “Outside the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 when you really look back to the last 50 years, nothing has been done. Castro is still there. Different first name.”
Standing in front of a primary school in Mariel, 56-year-old teacher Juan Manuel Lemus said he had hoped Obama’s opening would lead Cuban-Americans to invest in businesses in his decaying industrial hometown, the same way many had poured money into tourist centers like Havana.
“There are a lot of Americans and Cuban-Americans who have family here and more investment would be good for us,” he said.
But his immediate worry was much more personal.
“I have a son, my oldest, in the United States,” he said. “I’m afraid, really, about what happens if Trump cuts back relations. He’s in Tampa, painting houses, and the more open things are between the U.S. and Cuba, the better.”
ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON